Picture credit: Showtime Whether inspired by personal loss, an artistic or commercial failure, or responding to a changing global landscape, Cinema Year Zero will present texts on transitional works where … Continue reading VOLUME 1: APOCALYPSE
Desperate to offload a cache of complementary calendars he failed to deliver to clients on behalf of his employers, undertakers Shadrack & Duxbury, Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) heads to a desolate moor on the outskirts of his anonymous industrial Yorkshire hometown. The landscape, as depicted around the hour mark of John Schlesinger’s 1963 feature Billy Liar, is a grim evocation of British working class life in the early 1960s. The bleak greyscale celluloid imagery is effective enough, though Keith Waterhouse’s description of the scene in his original 1959 novel, which he helped to adapt, takes it further:
“The centre of the Moor was paved with cinders, where generations had tipped their slag and ashes, and where the annual fairs were held. There was a circumference of sparse yellow grass where the old men walked in summer, and I took the path they had worn towards a pocket of stone cottages, mostly condemned, that huddled miserably together in a corner of the Moor. Behind the cottages, the Moor rose steeply again, out of an ash pit, to meet the scraggy allotments.”
Such a sight is at odds with the line pushed by the Harold Macmillan’s 1957-63 Conservative administration, proclaiming amid a period of uneven economic growth that “most of our people have never had it so good”. For the working classes, whose daily lives did not reflect this purported postwar prosperity, this rhetoric only generated anxiety and frustration. From the ground, it was clear that what John Hill would call the “embourgeoisifying” of old values – an effort to erode class barriers in favour of an egalitarian social order – was empty rhetoric.
Waterhouse was part of a collective of ‘angry young men’ borne out of the frustration of the period – playwrights and authors including Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, whose works concerned the instability, deprivation and mundanity experienced by youths growing up in the shadow of the so-called ‘greatest generation’. Schlesinger, in the company of directors including Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, would carry this movement onto the screen. Billy Liar is the final entry in this ten-film cycle referred to as the ‘British New Wave’ (1959-63), characterised by a vérité filmmaking style and a roster of working class, young, male protagonists railing against but ultimately yielding to the drudgery, duty and misery requisite to their social circumstance. In step with preceding entries in the brief canon, Schlesinger depicts moments of futile misery – such as a middle-aged couple fretting over a deceased relative’s overdue library books – or desolate landscapes like the aforementioned moor to reinforce for cinemagoers the circumstances of Britain’s forgotten underclass. What sets Billy Liar apart from the dour realism of its predecessors, though, is Schlesinger’s use of surrealism and subjectivity to inject an illusion of tantalising, yet ultimately ephemeral opportunity into the film’s apocalyptic locale.
Tom Courtenay’s titular protagonist is a fantasist, first introduced in bed daydreaming about a victory parade in Ambrosia, a fictitious oligarchy of his own invention. Billy inserts himself as several characters in the absurd pageantry, including the country’s benevolent military dictator, a one-armed veteran and even a black infantryman (depicted using dubious blackface). The scene is an entertaining send-up of wartime jingoism. What makes it especially effective, though, is that Schlesinger shoots this and other scenes of imaginative escapism on the same streets of bleak, Bradford suburbia that Billy must navigate in reality, imbuing them with a romance and wonder entirely absent in the depiction of similar locations throughout the rest of the New Wave cycle.
It’s a romanticism elicited purely through escapism, though. Whether through his excursions to his invented fantasia or his boastful overinflation of an empty job offer to write jokes for his idol, comedian Danny Boon (Leslie Randall), Billy’s means of coping with the daily drudgery of his clerical work and his dual engagements to the virginal Barbara (Helen Fraser) and gregarious Rita (Gwendolyn Watts) are to imagine himself removed from them entirely. In this sense, he not only evokes those ‘embourgieousified’ sensibilities of Macmillan’s rhetoric, but also exposes its emptiness in his practical inability to climb the egalitarian ladder to a new social strata. Billy, like his fellow angry young men, is bound to his lot in life both by his multitudinous obligations and his own tendency to escape into fantasy rather than act upon or resist those obligations in any meaningful way.
The single day depicted across the span of Billy Liar is teed up as a significant one. Billy’s voiceover proclaims it a “day for big decisions” in the individualistic, One Nation conservative tradition. He will begin writing 2,000 words a day for his novel and start getting up on time in the mornings. Over the course of the film, his resolve is worn away on two fronts – the disbelief and cynicism of his family, friends and colleagues, and his own persistent inability to turn his fantasies into reality. Vocal scepticism from his mother (Mona Washbourne), who insists he cannot “switch and change and swap about” as he likes, rubs up against Billy’s own insistence that he is not “ordinary folk”. He deliberately tries to transcend the physical reality that surrounds him, reflected in Courtenay’s alternation between the character’s native Yorkshire dialect and a parody of Received Pronunciation English, as well as the freneticism of his physical movements that makes it difficult for Schlesinger’s camera to keep up with Billy. His shirking of professional and interpersonal obligations, such as stealing petty cash from work or refusing to stop playing his two fiancés off against each other, are insignificant rebellions that only serve to reinforce the circumstantial trap closing in around him.
Spiritual death stalks Billy at every turn, whether in the funereal nature of his work or the graveyard through which he walks while resignedly discussing plans with Barbara for their conventional suburban married life. He is awe-stricken by those who exude life and vitality for themselves and elicit it in others. When Danny Boon arrives in town to open the local supermarket, he brings with him a Scottish marching band to parade through the aisles of the pristine new store – the sort of surreal image Schlesinger allows Billy to conjure only in his imagination. Billy is deflated by a later run-in with Boon in which the comedian lays out the commitment and drive required to succeed as a comedy writer in London, traits which the young man cannot find it in himself to muster. However, it is the true object of Billy’s affections, Liz (portrayed by an ebullient Julie Christie in her first major role), who most challenges his shortcomings. A wayward soul, Liz’s adventures travelling to far-flung destinations such as Doncaster or working summers at Butlin’s are discussed by her numerous admirers with the same romance and wonder Billy only reserves for his invented stories. Escape is tangible and perfectly possible for Liz – as easy as hopping on a train. Christie moves through scenes with irreverent ease and meets Courtenay’s restlessness with a cutting, straightforward confidence. To Billy’s protestations that “it’s difficult” for him to leave home, Liz’s reply is a blunt “no, it isn’t”. She is the sort of free spirit Billy imagines himself as, but cannot bring himself to truly be.
In response to Liz’s insistence that they leave for London on the midnight train, Courtenay calibrates his performance so Billy’s enthusiasm is muted as quickly as it flares up. Ultimately, the death of Billy’s grandmother (Ethel Griffies) is the deciding factor that stops him, especially as he is made to feel complicit by his father (Wilfred Pickles) when Billy’s own raging tirade instigates the fit that puts her in hospital. Billy resolves at the final moment not to take the train with Liz, slipping away under the pretence of buying milk for their trip. In a climactic, devastating pull-in shot on Billy at the vending machine, he finally puts the dream to bed. Escape and renewal are possible for an active personality such as Liz. For Billy, both through his circumstances and his hubris, they remain out of reach.
Billy’s last walk home along the empty, darkened streets of his hometown rings true of the endings that typify the films of the British New Wave. In a pyrrhic victory for the era’s pervasive cultural conservatism, inflected with bittersweet resignation, the working class dreamer remains at his station, discouraged from his outrageous aspirations. The Ambrosian national anthem plays in Billy’s head in these final moments, as he again turns inward for fulfilment and escape, rather than enacting it outward. The sadness and resignation at play in this image embody the growing discontent that would lead to the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the year following the film’s release. For the privately-schooled, Oxford-educated brigadier’s son Schlesinger, salvation would follow soon after too – he would soon graduate from the social realist school into lush productions such as Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and American notoriety with Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1976). Nevertheless, Billy’s story and the futility of his efforts to escape his desolate environment persist as a damning and exuberant reckoning with the hypocrisy and limitations of Macmillan’s vision for an egalitarian, classless society.
The revelation of allegations against Adam Donaghey were a repulsive and shocking reminder of how rife abuse remains in American cinema, especially after #metoo. But we should not be surprised. Stories of abuse have always been central to Hollywood, from mythmaking legends like Fatty Arbuckle to Peggy Entwhistle throwing herself off the Hollywood sign.
Two texts from the male cannon that prove useful in considering why so little has changed within this culture are Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) and Twin Peaks: The Return (Lynch, 2017), thanks to their interrogation of the radical vs the nostalgic. Chinatown is a film from the 1970s set in the 1930s; the original series of Twin Peaks (Lynch, 1989) was made and set in 1989, but is haunted by the 40s and 50s. Beneath the rich and comforting aesthetics of these vintage filmscapes, and not very far beneath, lies a rot: incest, rape, cyclical abuse of women spanning generations and communities.
Emerging at the point of exchange between ideas and sensation as the dominant driver in American blockbuster cinema, between Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967) and Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), Chinatown is the pinnacle and end of classic Hollywood cinema. The film possesses those key facets of classic blockbuster cinema: it is set in Hollywood, hosts a grand Film Noir plot worthy of the Golden Age, and is populated with Hollywood royalty all the way down to the director, Roman Polanski.
Polanski is an ideal representative of the auteur: he is inseparable from his works, to the point where the movies he made are considered by critics as biographical readings of Polanski’s own life; at the height of his career his films were box office hits that attracted the hottest names of the time, and yet did not compromise on ideas or art; he is male (perhaps the most important factor in the difference between director and auteur); and, he is an accused sexual abuser who has to a large extent avoided repercussions. This final element puts him on a level with the many of his fellow auteurs, such as Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock.
Onscreen and off, Chinatown provokes discussions on subversive action, responsibility, and gendered systems of power, discussions that continue to echo through our culture today. Chinatown communicates the trap in looking back, how depending on traditional structures paralyses progression. Consider the last fatal moments of Chinatown (1974, Polanski). Jake has forced an admission from Evelyn that Noah Cross (John Huston), her father, also fathered her sister/daughter by force; he has pursued Evelyn, with the police and Cross, to Chinatown; a member of the police has shot Evelyn through the eye in her final attempt to escape; and, her daughter has been immediately abducted by Cross. Here Jake’s journey has come full circle: his ignorance, lack of power, and the shallow nature of his social rebellion are exposed in one single moment.
Through his investigation of Evelyn, Jake has destroyed an opportunity to break the cycle of abuse in the Cross family. The key factor in Cross’ victory is what Julie Grossman calls Jake’s ‘failures of vision’ and the ‘contrived social anarchy’ that James Kavanagh noted as a central theme when he reviewed the film in Jump Cut upon its release. When Jake’s quest to expose the truth is appeased by the disturbing death of Evelyn and the iconic “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”, his actions are revealed as not motivated by a search for the truth, but motivated by a search for what he wanted to see. Jake wants the case to be one of the upper classes controlling a city, of a beautiful society widow hiding a secret; he wants a case he can “bust wide open” for glory. But Chinatown shows us that the real badness in the world is not cleanly unravelled in front of a paying audience.
In that same moment Evelyn’s true radicalism is revealed. Given a choice between Cross custody and certain death, she puts her foot on the pedal and keeps driving away from authority. For the true radical actor there is no safety in turning back, there is no comfort in traditional structures of power and justice — Evelyn’s death is the only progressive option available to her. She acts with hope in hopeless circumstances. Evelyn, like Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991) after her, has to speed away from the police in order to access freedom and safety. So totally invasive is the ecosystem of patriarchal oppression in life, that act of driving forward gives freedom only in death.
Yet today’s TV and cinema audiences demand to have their nostalgia fed: reboots are more popular than ever and the dominant superhero genre thrives on adults choosing to believe in US backed heroes. It is this nostalgia culture that Lynch addressed in Twin Peaks: The Return, a series which, in its very placement within reboot culture, tries to shake audiences awake from nostalgic paralysis. Lynch breaks down the reboot with purpose, frustrating viewers with a slow burn return to Twin Peaks familiarity: withholding favourite characters from the original series, or showing them with stunted speech patterns in unsatisfying storylines; favouring crisp digital photography over the soothing daytime soap camera work of the original; and crucially, not bringing Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) back fully until the penultimate episode.
This should not have been a surprise. The final scene of the original series had already refused its audience satisfaction, ending on a cliffhanger where Cooper is replaced by an evil replica. Like in Chinatown, The Return comes back to that lesson: an evil that lives within community relationships (between father and daughter, police and citizen) is not to be neatly resolved. Ultimately, Bob (the evil that this town has been fighting since 1989) is defeated in a scene that features many Twin Peaks’ favourites, set in the comforting locality of the Sheriff’s station. This victory, which the entire series has been building to, is upset by Cooper himself. Instead of moving forward and working to fix the many traumas of Twin Peaks, he turns back, and goes back in time to “save” Laura Palmer. As he makes this choice, he is dissociated from reality, his head superimposed over the image of his friends. Perhaps this is the good, progressive, helpful Cooper leaving the ego-driven Cooper in his hunt for the impossible glory of rewriting the past. If this wasn’t a red flag already, the following scene reveals that the presence which made Laura scream in the forest on the night that she died was the sight of Cooper, waiting to “save” her.
Lynch shows us in these dissociating images, which insert new footage into scenes from Fire Walk With Me, that something has gone very wrong. Instead of meeting her fate in the forest with “Bob”, a fate of which Laura was so supernaturally aware that she wrote about it in her diary, Laura is snapped up into the unknown — the small agency Laura possessed has been ripped from her. When she died first, Laura took the same radical step as Evelyn; she writes in her last diary entry: “Tonight is the night that I die. I know I have to, because it’s the only way to keep Bob away from me, the only way to tear him out from inside.” By refusing survival, Laura rejects the systems of evil around her, and she can move on to a spiritual world where she is finally out of evil’s reach. But because Cooper could not accept the truth, she has been ripped from that haven. He says “I’m taking you home”, but just as for Evelyn, home is a place of abuse for Laura. In “fixing” the past, Cooper has lost his key instinct which made him comforting to the viewer and to Laura, when she dreamt of him.
Jake and Cooper’s “failure of vision” is the failure to see the action that needs to be taken now to begin to break a cycle, to continue Evelyn’s hard work for the safety of her sister/daughter, to repair the lives of those still suffering in Twin Peaks. Cooper ends astounded and disorientated in a parallel universe, forcing a parallel Laura to relive the original’s trauma; Jake is exhausted by the rotten reality unearthed by his own actions. These men of the law fail to see wider systemic problems and falter at their own short sightedness. By their own refusal to address the present moment, any radical or good work they had succeeded in doing is undone. Good acts build a radical future, bad acts try to rewrite the past.
So why do these texts come to the same conclusion, that the only progressive action is death? Evidentially, our society has not succeeded in building a radical future beyond that step. Critical dialogue is stuck in bourgeois conversations about the morality of engaging in work created by abusers. The woman (at the time a child) that Polanski raped in the ‘70s has stated that the press has done more damage to her family than the director ever did. Rather than excuse his actions, her statement emphasises how victims are retraumatised as their cases are subject to the same debates year on year which keep genuine radical change in paralysis. When the reaction to abuse is to debate whether the abuser’s work should be defined by their actions rather than to build a radical future that leaves that abuse in the dust, men like Polanski, Allen, and Donaghey can continue to dominate film culture.
Since 1974, at the latest, the future has failed to materialise — the apocalyptic moment spreads across decades, and manifests in a culture which by repetition of the past misremembers the truth, and results in toxic culture.
On October 9th 2019 I saw Patricio Guzman’s The Cordillera of Dreams at the London Film Festival. It’s a documentary about post-Pinochet Chile, which denounces the neoliberal policies that perpetuate inequality in the country. “Neoliberal” is an oft-abused term that can be rather vague. To clarify what is meant here, the Pinochet regime implemented free-market reforms devised by US-educated economists. This led to the privatisation of many industries which exacerbated economic inequality. Chile is today one of the only countries to have almost completely privatised water. Guzman narrates the film through voiceover ultimately delivering a thesis that these policies were birthed from the US-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a corrupt regime which perpetrated the murder and torture of thousands.
Five days after I saw the film, protests started in Santiago. It began with the rise of rush-hour metro prices, but quickly became an expression for general inequality in CHile and subsequently spread to other cities. President Sebastián Piñera (whose brother Jose had been the architect of Chile’s privatised pension scheme under Pinochet) hastily declared a state of emergency. While an exact figure is not certain, it has been reported that more than 20 people have died in the violence.
The Cordillera of Dreams marks the third film in what could be called a trilogy of documentaries Guzman has been making in the 2010s, which used the geography of Chile as a jumping-off point to explore the lingering after-effects of the Pinochet dictatorship. Nostalgia For the Light (2010) focusses on women searching for the remains of relatives killed by the regime, while The Pearl Button (2015) looked at the historical exploitation of indigenous people. Each film linked these issues with features of the Chilean landscape. With Nostalgia, this was the Atacama Desert, while The Pearl Button on the impact water has on the land. With The Cordillera of Dreams, Guzman’s perspective turns inwards to the titular cordillera: a vast chain of mountain ranges we know as the Andes. These mountains overlook Guzman’s childhood home of Santiago.
In the opening of the film, Guzman problematises the audience’s relationship with images. After introducing viewers to the cordillera through sublime aerial shots, and a shot of the camera slowly running its tongue over an old map, Guzman settles in front of a fresco of the mountain range in a Santiago subway station for a prolonged take.
The image that was once so impressive is rendered mundane as the camera’s perspective is frequently disrupted by passing commuters going about their day. A slow zoom into the fresco combines with a dissolve into more aerial footage to suggest profundity, before pulling back and returning us to the banality of waiting for a train.
It is here that Guzman recalls through voiceover seeing the cordillera for the first time on a matchbox. He cuts, as though we are peering into the director’s mind, of said matchbox. The cordillera as symbol may signal some metaphysical significance to the viewer, but Guzman reminds us that it is simultaneously that of a commonplace commodity. This ambivalence towards the significance of the image bleeds its way into an overarching theme about the role and limitations of collective remembrance.
Arguably the human centre of the film is Pablo Salas. Since the early 1980s, Salas has been filming protests, capturing the abuses of the Pinochet regime and beyond. Guzman intersperses present-day footage of Salas filming on the street, and speaking in his office, alongside archive footage he captured from the 1980s. Salas casually discusses his process alongside footage of police beating protestors and jets of water.
In his cramped office, Salas is engulfed by shelves of videotape. Reams of history shadow over him as the Andes loom over Santiago in the aerial shots that Guzman and his team have captured. Yet, as Salas himself points out, everything he and others have captured over the years is still only a fraction of the abuses that arose from the 1973 coup. Guzman silently implicates himself by including this snippet in the film, as earlier in Cordillera he recalls filming the coup for his Battle of Chile trilogy in the 1970s. The romantic notion of the cameraman, like a chivalrous knight or intrepid explorer, immortalising history with his signature weapon, is tempered by the immense void of that which will forever remain unseen
The limitations of visual documentation proved to be prescient in the weeks after I saw the film. One of the most spectacular images from the unrest in Santiago that October was the ENEL tower building engulfed in flame. With ENEL being a multinational energy company, anti-capitalists abroad would have found it hard not to be excited by the symbolism of this footage.
However, tweets from Chileans suggest that the fire may have been a false-flag operation to turn the tide of public opinion against the protests. Therefore, the morality of non-Chilean leftists sharing such images on social media becomes more fraught. As of writing, police across the US have unleashed a wave of violence on its citizens for protesting against the continuing brutalisation of Black people. With these rapidly unfolding events in which misinformation can spread easily, the morality of sharing videos online is once again brought into focus.
This leaves us all with the uncomfortable question about the political utility of films.What purposes do these images of protests and political repression seek to serve?
As much as we may like to think otherwise, the market can reduce something as poetic and committed as The Cordillera of Dreams to just another matchbox we can log on Letterboxd.
For a young film critic, still excited by international film festivals, it is all too easy to be swept up into the romantic myth of a partaking in the nexus of a global culture. Yet such an attitude obscures the contradictions in how these festivals operate. We feel good watching “worthwhile” or “important” documentaries about the issues facing our world, issues we may otherwise have been ignorant to.
Yet, as Guzman seeks to draw attention to that which is unseen, the cosmopolitan cinephile may be unable or unwilling to seek out the invisible hand of neo-liberalism that guides their viewing habits. The London Film Festival, where I saw Cordillera is sponsored by American Express, a corporate entity that is very much part of the capitalist machine that continues to extract wealth from Latin America. According to a 2007 article by Manuel Riesco in the New Left Review, Chile’s largest export, copper, is 70 percent controlled by multinational corporations. Guzman highlights this economic reality in Cordillera through an eerie sequence of trains transporting copper, at one point halting at a shanty town.
As global inequality becomes evermore stark both onscreen and in our everyday lives, simply sitting in a cinema or clicking on a vimeo link without significant action backing it up is shown up as an empty gesture. The pervasive myth of film as a unifying force is peddled by cinephiles less as a call to change our world but merely to justify their own existence as cinephiles. It is a hollow call devoid of connection from the world we all live in. As politically conscious viewers we must ask ourselves: “What Is To Be Done?”
Amos Levin, as told to Ben Flanagan
When lockdown started in the UK and the US I came across this link on Twitter, I can’t remember where it came from but it was a link for a Google Drive folder called ‘This Light’. I saw there were a bunch of experimental films and Hollywood films and Japanese films – a huge range. I was surprised and amazed. I got in touch with the email of the guy who runs it – he’s based in LA and his name is Andrew Norman Wilson. He’s a filmmaker in his own right, a moving image artist. We got talking and he was asking users of the Google drive to curate a spotlight, a sub-folder to the folder. There was one about heist movies, one about Bruce Goff the architect. I looked at what I had and noticed I have a bunch of films from Africa. Obviously I didn’t want to make a folder that’s just an umbrella, ‘ooh African films’. That’s just curatorial standards, know what I mean? So I saw that there were a few in my folder that had to do specifically with anti-colonialism and uprising. I had a think of what other films I’d seen that could go well together with those films and did some Piratebay research, and got the nine films together.
Out of the 9 films, I’d seen 8. I hadn’t seen The Land (1969) yet, but I knew of it. I’d missed a couple of screenings of the restoration, which obviously I couldn’t get in the folder so we have this DVD transfer. I caught up with that, made sure it fit the vibe of the others not just on the surface level. Was fun to find out it’s both.
There’s a bunch of reasons why it is so hard for some of these films to get proper releases. After they manage to get made, it’s historically difficult for African films to get distribution outside of Africa. When they get a bad distribution in the first place, it slips out of the public mind. After that, there’s no real demand for more screenings or home video release. They have bad distribution because of straight-up racism. It’s a lack of interest from people in general, or distributors who assume there is no audience for these films in America or the UK. If they do get picked up, it’s very small. In a few cases in the folder those films have literally been banned. The Ousmane Sembene film Camp de Thiaroye (1988) was banned by the French for ten years because it depicts war crimes perpetrated by the French government. Similarly, Sarraounia (1986) by Med Hondo wasn’t outright banned but the release was essentially sabotaged by its own distributor, and it’s very likely this was due to external political pressures. Even today the French government does not want to admit to that much wrongdoing with regard to colonialism. They don’t hide that it happened but they do hide the disgusting facts, the rape and the murder. There’s a lot of effort made to suppress that. So sometimes it is completely explicit like in the case of the Sembene, other times it’s a little more subtle. It doesn’t necessarily come from the government, it might be nationalist groups who pressure the distributor.
I don’t know how Battle of Algiers got so big – it’s in the canon! But if i recall it was also banned in France. I think the fact that it’s mostly an Italian production, by a white director… there wasn’t much of a precedent for that kind of film at the time. It’s the earliest film in Glory and Dignity. Sarah Maldoror served as assistant director and then went on to begin her own career. Obviously Sambizanga had to be done in secret, she made it out of Angola while under Portugal’s colonial rule.
I tried finding out a little more about Black Sun, but it’s so unknown that it’s hard to find out anything. The reason I came to know about the film is I was doing technical support at MUBI and a guy emailed saying he was doing his PhD and looking for that film, so did we have it? We didn’t, but I thought it sounded cool so I found how the title is written in Russian cyrillic script, had a google, clicked on the first few results and then found it on some Russian torrent site. There it was. I paid a friend to make subtitles for it. It’s that kind of endeavour. When I finally watched it, not that long ago it had 2 views on letterboxd. I don’t think there’s much written about the film anywhere. But it’s so good!
It played at Film Lincoln a few years ago, so I’m guessing there’s a screenable print out there in a Moscow archive or something. In an ideal world, anyone who wants to watch that film can teleport to the time and place of that Lincoln Center screening because that’s apparently the only way you can watch it legally. This folder was a matter of giving access to films that are literally inaccessible. With the exception of Battle of Algiers, nothing was available on DVD or streaming. I’m a square, I will redirect people to the legal means even if it means giving £5 to Amazon. But in cases like these, it’s too frustrating to wait around for somebody to magically decide ‘Ooh, let’s restore this film and make it available at an affordable price.’ If I want to in retrospect state a mission for this folder, then it’s to make people aware of these films in the first place. Because without people knowing about them, what incentive is there to restore films? If they literally do not exist in the public knowledge? Unfortunately this is impossible legally. So this is what we’re doing.
One case I know of, and I don’t want to make a big generalisation but it looks like it’s the case for most labs, is the Nigerian film Black Goddess (1978). I watched it in Bologna in 2018. It’s great and Ola Balogun, the director, was there and he talked about the restoration efforts. What was screened was the only available 35 print, from the Japan foundation for whatever reason. So you had this 35mm print of a Nigerian film mostly set in Brazil that had Japanese subtitles on the side, vertical. It was kind of wild. When they talked about the restoration process they discussed the fact that they found the negative, which is the first step. But it’s in a lab in London who are asking for £20,000 just to take it out of the archive to scan. An insane fee. Apparently that’s the case for a lot of these films. It’s a huge financial hurdle in terms of doing any sort of work to revive or get these films back in the hands of the public. I don’t know what they expect. The options are we let this film that does not exist in any viewable copy rot in their refrigerated archive, or we wait until kingdom come for someone with 20K to say ‘Yeah, I’ll take this out.’ The sad reality is film business is still business. I’m sure they have to calculate what return on an investment they can get with a 70s Nigerian film, so when labs ask for that kind of insane money, it just de-incentivises anybody who’s interested in doing that work.
I wonder if they use a completely inflexible flat fee system. If the Swedish film institute is looking for a good print of some lesser known Bergman film and they found it in a London archive, they probably have the kind of money to drop 20K and make it part of the restoration process. It’s a properly state funded organisation and a Bergman film – they can exploit that in a bunch of ways from screening at restoration festivals around the world, to Criterion box set, to streaming rights etc. When it comes to African films it’s more difficult because of all the difficulties that came before. All of the people who should be excited about these films don’t know about them. African films are not a priority for big art institutions in general. For labs to take these kind of projects with the same prices seems stupid and stubborn, and detrimental to culture.
I had Sambizanga in my folder before she passed away and would have included it either way, but the death of Sarah Maldoror made it especially important to have it in there. After sharing that folder with my friends, they had all been switched onto her by Another Gaze’s symposium. It’s thanks to Yasmina Price and Maldoror’s daughter Annouchka de Andrade, and all the scholars on that call that there’s a renewed interest. It was important for me to include it there. In terms of criteria for the folder, I wanted it to be really focussed. On top of films being about political uprising, I told myself I would stick to films made on the continent. Not diasporic cinema. Up until the end I considered adding Soleil O and just having three Hondo films in there. But it felt out of place. You could easily make an amazing selection of French/African cinema as a separate thing that would be just as rich. There were a lot of questions in my mind. Is it okay for me, some white dude, to put this folder together?
In the case of this, in the end… why not? I’m not getting paid, I invested money in the subtitles. If I was doing this in an actual institutional role, I would have a lot of doubts and would not take it upon myself to curate a series like this. All the people that have done the hard work in getting these names better known in Western cinephile culture like Lydia Ogwang, who put together ‘The Indocile Image: The Cinema of Med Hondo’ in Canada, which brought him into renewed interest and taught me a lot, even just by flicking through pages on the website. It felt weird to swoop in and say ‘look at these cool films that I know of and am so amazing for curating for you guys.’ I know about these films because of Black scholars who have been doing work in the US, Canada, France.
I stressed out toward the end because I am not well read on these political movements. Most of what I know comes from those films. I am no expert, but these are films that I have had the privilege to see because I can afford to go to Il Cinema Ritrovato and the BFI. I have access to them. So it felt right to give back to people in that way. These are just films I like, I hope are important to you, and that I learned a lot from
My utopian vision for lets call them ‘old films’, and there’s a whole debate about what counts as heritage, but in my perfect world there’s no real copyright. It’s just a way of companies getting the money, whereas the filmmakers don’t get that much. It’s frustrating how many films are just locked behind bars, locked in vaults. Back when Disney bought Fox and said they would restrict screening rights, I was so angry. For a second I considered studying Media Law and dedicating years of my life to fight this kind of copyright abuse, especially Disney’s copyright abuse that extends copyright for decades just so they can make billions and billions more. It feels like the copyright system is broken. The rights to a film expire and suddenly no one is in charge, and then the film dies. That’s fucking stupid. You can get in touch with the studio that had the rights before, and they’ll tell you the rights expired and it’s not their problem. Films need to be protected a little more. Especially in countries like America. Russia had this whole Soviet system that’s still there where all of the films were state funded, protected by cinemateches. But I heard the Dovzhenko institute is under threat of closure from lack of funding, and that’s depressing because they hold so much, including Kira Muratova. Would they be redistributed to other archives? It’s not unheard of that prints are thrown in the actual garbage. I heard when digital cinema became the norm, the UK Sony offices threw away all their prints. Throwing Pulp Fiction in the garbage might seem fine when there’s a hundred fucking prints, but will there be 100 years from now?
Amos’ Glory and Dignity collection can be watched at This Light.
Following a bunch of Republicans who are chased down for blood sport by rich liberals, The Hunt was postponed by Universal after Donald Trump tweeted ‘The movie coming out is made to inflame and cause chaos.’ He wasn’t wrong about its intentions, but Craig Zobel’s satire is occasionally toothless. Less Team America: World Police (2005) than The Running Man (1987), it’s a solid piece of Blumhouse fare that uses its own genre awareness to send up political negligence. Zobel presents this hunt as ‘Manorgate’, a conspiracy theory peddled by Qanon types that Liberals enact as a sort of moral lesson on Facebook commenters, including a compelling Betty Gilpin. Its eventual release date on March 11 2020 made it an unlikely kin to Bacurau, the ingenious film from Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, which was receiving its Arthouse rollout after winning the Jury Prize at Cannes 2019. But both films had their theatrical runs cut short, victims of the Coronavirus lockdown. In Bacurau, a small Brazilian village is taken completely off the grid by American tourists attempting a massacre, who get more than they bargained for. Watching these films together on VOD, where they now reside, it’s hard to ignore their similarities in illustrating the rich/poor divide through sick kills. In Bacurau and The Hunt, victims fight back to varying levels of success, with particular focus being put on the bodies that are used as a commodity as the murderers rack up kills, video game style.
Blame it on The Purge (2013). Surely not even Ethan Hawke anticipated the cultural impact of Blumhouse’s schlocky thriller. Speculating on a world where all crime is legal for one night a year, The Purge passed $80 million box office on a $3 million budget while being written off by critics for shallow and reactionary politics. Director James DeMonaco, who helmed all but one of the four-strong series, uses the cartoonish scenario to point out what we all know: that the American elite use tradition to systematically oppress and kill the underclass. Rich families protect themselves in highly secure gated communities (in the first film, Hawke got so rich and flashy off selling security that his neighbours conspire against him). The Purge franchise repeats imagery of fancy white families performing ritual killings of homeless and Lantinx people, relishing the aesthetics of white supremacy before letting a diverse band of scrappy working class characters fight back against Richard Spencer lookalikes. Their outcasts vs elites recital is vague enough that any viewer can cast themselves in the role of grizzled Frank Grillo, hobo with a shotgun one minute, and presidential bodyguard the next.
The specifics of the films are less than the sum of their premise, which captures the simple horror of global class disparity. The ‘Purge’ concept takes a Battle Royale scenario and leaps into the viewer’s imagination with such vividness that it can endure the diminishing returns of sequelitis, fan fiction (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74KAGEe-IdU), or an inevitable Rick and Morty parody. However, the genre was born in an earlier era of depression. The Most Dangerous Game, a 1924 short story by Richard Connell in a Hemingway mode, sends up Big-Game safari hunting by having a Russian Aristocrat go after American tourists for sport. A Joel McRea/Fay Wray starring adaptation was filmed at the height of the Great Depression (1932), at night on the King Kong set by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack. It has much of Kong’s exosticism and mystic violence. The callous Russian aristocrat who preys on McCrea’s Big-game businessman draws lines between the rich and the really rich.
In April 2020, the much maligned streaming service Quibi re-adapted Connell’s story into a vehicle for Liam Hemsworth, with Christoph Waltz stretching himself to play a sophisticated, verbose hunter. But the genre’s growth into the wider-reaching ‘Purge’ leaves Waltz and Hemsworth biting its dust. “Purge” presents a clear class dichotomy that ignores how factors like race or disability might impact intra-class power, and then allows for a viewer catharsis when the victims inevitably turn the tables on their attackers. That both Bacurau and The Hunt pick apart the “Purge” concept while indulging the viewer in those same cathartic pleasures should come as no surprise. This is cinema-du-troll.
Globalisation is high up on the agenda in these films, establishing the US as a kind of safe zone outside of which lawlessness and carnage runs rampant. In The Hunt, it is difficult to figure out how much of this is supposed to be ironic. Although it amusingly hints that this is in part an EU-endorsed endeavor, that the neo-liberal agents used deregulatory technology like Airbnb to set up their grand scheme, it also depicts Europe as a forest outland overrun with refugees. The commentary that a member of Manorgate can infiltrate a group of refugees and use them as ‘Bad Actors’ to be in the right place at the right time for the needs of this bloody cabal is intriguing, but it amounts to a mere gesture to reality that has no direct parallel to feed off of.
Bacurau is far more specific in its globalisation commentary, contrasting Third Cinema tropes with American Genre and Spaghetti Western technique to question globalisation and international filmmaking. Though Bacurau makes its debt to John Carpenter clear, with the town’s school named ‘Joao Carpentiera’ for the great master, Filho and Dornelles’ spirit can be seen in one of Carpenter’s Fullerian influences. Cornel Wilde’s underrated The Naked Prey (1965) is a ripping yarn which submerges the viewer in awful colonialist imagery, luring the western viewer into safety with white soldiers ordering around South African tribesmen, intercut with stock footage of cheetahs hunting zebra and the like. The tribesmen soon get their own back, killing all but one of the soldiers, played by Wilde himself, and then hunting him for sport in a near-wordless action sequence that lasts almost the whole run time.
With just a few hints of science-fiction, the first half of Bacurau presents the inverse of this. Scenes of communal life, with a funeral that the whole town attends while tripping on a local hallucinogenic, of sex work that isn’t frowned upon by the townspeople, and references to the town’s lineage all suggest the kind of festival film that impresses critics but fails to find a wider audience. Think of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, whose slow cinema docu-fiction contrasts heightened emotion with very long takes and meta-storytelling that only appeals to a very niche arthouse audience that follows his work over a long time. Bacurau intentionally suggests this mode of filmmaking in its languorous sketches of townspeople, while rupturing its own myth-making with glimpses of the future such as the 50s style UFO that chases down a motorcyclist. Central to Bacurau, the place and the film, is appreciation of the histories, stories, and even myths that make up the town’s atmosphere. There is the Pacote / Acacio story, where this ex-bandit’s crimes are shown on a big screen in the town square. The museum is full of memories from a gestured at ‘uprising’, suggest Bacurau to be a mere chapter in a wider chronicle of the town.
Myth is an equally important factor in The Hunt, but the central myths are of the more modern technocratic fear of Fake News. ‘Manorgate’ is directly analogous to the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy around the 2016 US election, where right wing online commenters theorised that a DC pizza restaurant was being used by The DNC to harvest children. A similar conspiracy takes place in Zobel’s world, where a group of liberal elites are accused of murdering ordinary middle Americans in a Purge-like situation, Manorgate, after a leaked group text makes it online. The participants in the group chat are shamed online and lose their jobs, motivating them to set up the conspiracy for real as revenge against the most ardent commenters. Technology is aligned with Manorgate, who use social media data to track down their victims and set up the simulated version of the Manorgate conspiracy based on online imaginings.
The Hunt’s analogy rests on the notion that the Libs stage a real Manorgate as retribution for the fake Manorgate myth propagated by MAGA. That the Libs themselves came up with the scheme, joked about in a leaked text chat, adds a further complication, and one that’s quite difficult to follow as a straightforward analogy. The implication appears to be that if fake news reports outlandish conspiracies that resemble movie plots, there is often a germ of truth to them too. Pizzagate itself may be false, but many DNC (and RNC!) high-ups appear in the Jeffrey Epstein Black Book. Abuse is rife among the liberal elite, but The Hunt implies that abuse is a response to provocation rather than a perk of power. Though it sees Europe as the wild west, every American character is trying to get one over on the other. The future resembles a techno-fascist nightmare of benevolent data collection. It made me think of Isiah Medina’s big-tech-propaganda-failure Inventing the Future (2020), which imagines a world in which socialism is achieved through tech companies sharing their resources so that the universal basic income supported proletariat may leave their bodies and form a hive mind. Its laughable wish-fulfillment (and what wish!) makes the viewer long for the violent cruelty of The Purge, which may at least rid us of the Macbook-class.
Both Bacurau and The Hunt understand this. These films are savvy enough to understand that myth now translates as cultural signification, casting appropriately winking antagonists to situate the film in a wider pop-cultural tapestry. Udo Kier’s smirking German mercenary, who trains and leads the tourists attacking Bacurau, encourages the viewer to point ‘Nazi!’ at the screen. A blurry picture framed and hanging on his wall has overtones of Joseph Mengele, featuring a bunch of strapping blonde men doing salutes outside an amazonian house. Filho/Dornelles know their audience is thinking this, so they prod at the Levinian stereotype by having Kier laugh and dress down a brash American for using the Nz word. Nazism is an essential part of Brazilian myth, a conspiracy theory that predates even Pizzagate.
If Bacurau lampshades its own cliche as an excuse for triteness, then The Hunt finds new ways to subvert its own myth. Hilary Swank is cast as the key antagonist Athena Stone, who privileges #girlboss feminism and woke word salad above all. Swank signifies feminism, known for Oscar-winning roles exploring gender in Boys Don’t Cry, about a trans-man, and female-boxing drama Million Dollar Baby. Her turn in The Hunt is just as incisive in deconstructing a type of pantsuit-essentialist glass ceiling smasher and prosecco-guzzler. For Athena, a knock to her pride from a working class hick is worse than the structure atop the corporation she works at stopping her social climb. She would rather see a MAGA chud change than her multi-billion dollar business.
As Bacurau mocks the cynicism of films like The Hunt, it finds that simplistic politics of retribution are complicated. In using Western technique and Spaghetti style on the colonisers, it rubs up against its own hypocrisy. As much as they have flipped the US-centric genre on its head by having the colonised people fight back, Bacurau and The Hunt have merely reaffirmed class roles through cartoon depictions. Purge is an essentially reactionary genre that asks for its viewers to experience the same catharsis in each iteration. Until a filmmaker figures out how to coherently ironise the genre, it will continue to mask simplistic politics under the guise of satire.
The church courtyard is filled with acrobats, contortionists and sword-eaters. A dog sits on its hind legs. One man balances a big wheel on his brow. Peasants revel beneath them. These illustrations of folklife show the forces of levity trumping those of wickedness. They occur just before the hour mark in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), interspersed with close-ups of Joan, in tears and locks shorn, reneging on her confession. With this fatal decision, the carnival is rendered anew. It is now the ironic spectacle that precedes the execution. The crowd believe she is saved. Soldiers, jurors and clerics interrupt the happy mob. Joan is bound to the stake. “Jesus!” she screams. “Jesus!”
Joan, played by the infinite Renée Jeanne Falconetti, is lamenting Christ, her spiritual forebear. Dreyer’s silent film depicts her Passion and sacrifice, during which she undergoes a procedural game of ensnarement and deception. As the opening card puts it, she is subject to a virulent “band of blind theologians and skilled jurists.” In efforts to appease their English masters, this overeducated set demand that Joan admits her heresy against the Church. Dreyer lights the actors without make-up, so their faces appear stark and unflattering. Aging men grandstand and postulate, nose hair flaring, chins doubling and redoubling, heads dotted with warts and pious scalps. They constitute the true carnival of grotesques. Their interrogations form Joan’s suffering and endurance until death.
In the chapel, where much of Joan’s preliminary trial takes place, false logic is the enemy of the defendant. As used by the clerics, deductive reasoning functions as conniving wordplay. Tools of endless discussion intend to debilitate. Tactics of staccato deliberation seek to deceive. Prosecutorial feints conflate theology with law, and law with politics. The captors’ civilised pretensions mask the ever-present threat: to spit, shout down, admonish. To their devious challenges, Joan is the exception. She stands outside the accumulation of precedents, rules and norms. Her innocent responses—paragons of pure articulation—touch upon the sublime. This is surely what fascinated the Weimar thinker and subsequent Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who watched the film, on its release, more than ten times in six months. Across Europe, from Berlin to Rome, he took to the cinema friends, lovers and sex workers alike.
In his diaries, Schmitt is deeply impressed by this work of “cinematic art.” His obsession was probably multifaceted. Circumstantially, the film reflected his difficult divorce, which the Catholic Church had initially refused him. Ideologically, the film had at its centre a figure of liberation who embodied many of his core political principles: an agent of sovereign exception able to transcend the vague, meaningless gestures of parliamentary performance. For him, the capacity to decide one’s fate supplants the ability to chat about it. He also identified in St Joan, canonised in 1920, the archetype of an effective national myth:
St Joan led her people out of a desperate military situation. Almost any sentence from the mouth of this saint is an answer that any nation may give itself. When this saint answered the question of whether she wanted to claim that God hated the English, saying that she did not know whether that was the case, but she knew that the English had to leave France, she thereby gave an answer that every people must give their oppressors and exploiters.
Schmitt characterises Joan through both Dreyer’s disjunctive presentation of the trial process, itself based on the 1431 court transcripts, and Falconetti’s dramatic interpretation, which artfully combines expressions of bemusement and unanticipated clarity. Not only does Joan outwit the snare of state affiliation, complicated by the traitorous clerics’ subservience to English crown, she additionally reveals the pompous prurience of her adversaries.
The grand inquisitor is Bishop Cauchon, the ugliest of all the learned scholars. He asks Joan about one of her alleged revelations. “What was Saint Michael wearing?” Her silence is met with further provocation. “Why are you wearing men’s clothes?” Her refusal to be in dress exposes the thwarted lasciviousness of those who wish to break her. The emphasis on clothing is one of worldly futility. Minor symbols pale in the wake of an overwhelming, mythic subject. Joan’s wide eyes, matched to Dreyer’s unconventional use of sightlines, pierce the perverse geometries of the castle. Her pursuit of martyrdom holds some vital and visual human element, more intoxicating than the merely abstract states of grace and mercy.
Joan functions as Schmitt’s secularised God, as a potent avatar for political mythmaking. Filmmakers from Robert Bresson to Bruno Dumont have likewise adapted the story of Joan of Arc, craving its foundational value while mining for its tragic and ecstatic qualities. H.D., the modernist poet and contemporary critic, was sceptical of Dreyer’s stylistic excesses. Yet, the director’s rendition clearly affected Schmitt, who may have interpreted its commitment to subjective experience as that which most closely evokes the Passion. For him, the miracle in theology corresponds to the exception in politics. In art, the miracle was likely reproduced in Dreyer and Falconetti’s experiential vision. Schmitt took ten attempts, at least, to bear its witness. For what? Three years on, he had devoted himself to an altogether different myth, one of National Socialism and moral ruin.
In 2011, the First Libyan Civil War ended with the deposition of the leader-turned-fugitive Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who was found by rebels and executed in the street. By 2012, nearly every foreign embassy had left the country. The United States, however, still had a CIA base in the city of Benghazi, as well as a diplomatic outpost a mile away and an embassy in Tripoli.
On the night of September 11, 2012, and into the early morning of the next day, militants in the Ansar al-Sharia group attacked the outpost and the CIA base. It is not known how many Libyans died in the attack, but four Americans were killed: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (as of writing, the last American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty); foreign service technician Sean Smith; and CIA hired guns Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. The Obama administration, especially then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would be blamed for it. Then-senator from Arizona, Republican John McCain, characterised the administration’s response as ‘either incompetence or a massive cover-up’.
In narrative cinema, a tension has existed since its inception between the illusion of reality and an audience’s conscious reiteration that such a practice is illusory. That we must remind ourselves as audiences that films are illusory proves that the impulse to take the illusion at its word is stronger than our desire to break away from it. That is understandable: cinema is the closest any medium can get to simulating the experience of reality, being as it is composed of image, sound and movement all together. The world’s increasing consumption of visual ideas through consumer technology on social media has made the persuasive power of digital potent, and ripe for the creation of a more perfect propaganda. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) is an innovation in that regard.
A dramatization of the 2012 Islamic militant attack on a diplomatic compound and a CIA outpost in Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of two US contractors, a technician, and the US Ambassador Chris Stevens, the avatar for this retelling is John Krasinski’s Jack Silva. One of the CIA’s contractors, at the movie’s opening, he is returning to Benghazi after several years spent in the United States with his family. Krasinski’s casting, at the time a break from his image as a goofy everyman cultivated in the American iteration of The Office, is an inspired choice. It leads the audience into hostile territory. As mortifyingly dench as Krasinski became for the role, the barrier between the audience’s world and Benghazi is softer because of his presence. He’s a family man who’s not afraid to cry when he finds out his wife is having another baby; like us, he’s also untethered to distant bureaucracies. Silva is a gun for hire, an ordinary hero whose presence in Benghazi, ostensibly, is just as easy to imagine as any of ours. (Krasinski has become an action star in his own right – back on television, playing Jack Ryan for Amazon – in a gross misunderstanding of how excellent his role in this specific film is.)
Even though Krasinski is the most ordinary of Benghazi’s secret soldiers, he is not atypical of their manner. The grunts are affectionate and brotherly towards each other, as well as to those they have waiting for them back home. Not only that – some of them are well-read. One of the soldiers, Boon (David Denman), whose dialogue is repeated in reverential voiceover for the film’s climax, quotes Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth to the soldiers’ commander Rone (James Badge Dale). ‘All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you.’ Rone repeats these words minutes before biting the dust. The grunts FaceTime their families before the attack, getting messages from the front-line back home. There can surely be no video message home that is more potent than 13 Hours– the horror of war, seen from the ground, in reconstructed reality.
Bay’s uses digital video for both vérité and image-making purposes. As much as he favours handheld the action sequences, he still can’t resist fashioning transparently constructed, traditional shots out of more conventional cinematic language. And although digital video can smear colour and take away all its pop, Bay actually heightens it. The interiors are saturated with oranges and yellows, and the exteriors pulsate with blue and green lens flares from street lights.
Nevertheless, it breaks the illusion of traditional Hollywood cinema in its verisimilitude while at the same time reinforcing that illusion. Bay’s digital, handheld imagery is so consummate that the more traditional formal moments are wrapped in a veneer of reality. You are not just experiencing a retelling of the Benghazi attack – you are re-experiencing the attack itself.
The precedent for this is established in the opening moments, where Bay makes the startling choice to use actual cell phone footage of Gaddafi’s execution. At the outset, the real world has already blended with Bay’s retelling of it. And yet, he still uses the opportunity to turn this real image into a constructed one by superimposing Gaddafi’s execution with footage of him sitting, proudly, in full military regalia at an army event months – maybe years – before: the proud leader’s image tarnished with pictures of his naked demise.
In keeping with this endless proliferation of images, Bay turns surveillance into a story-telling tool – shots taken by drones (as in harmless helicopters one might get for Christmas) sit alongside facsimile footage taken by ‘drones’ (as in the vehicles used for bombing civilians). ‘You see the drone?’ Rone asks an unfriendly Libyan that tries to stop his car in the street. ‘No? Well, it sees you.’ Bay turns surveillance into a theme of the movie, if only briefly. Later, before the attack, Tanto takes pictures of insurgents in the street for intel purposes. ‘Yeah, smile motherfuckers,’ he whispers to himself.
But what is the purpose of such propagandising? It would be foolish to assume Bay’s intentions are rooted in praxis, though the exact timing of the film’s release – mere weeks before the first 2016 Democratic primary would set former Secretary of State and warmonger Hillary Clinton on the path to eat Donald Trump’s dust in the presidential election that year – can only cause us to speculate. Nevertheless, Bay makes no efforts to hide the ideology at play in 13 Hours, complex though it may be.
Chuck Hogan’s script is alive with virulence for the elected officials who run the show. The grunts instead believe in a more nebulous idea of US power. Pencil-pushing is contemptible, but raw force is not. After surviving another wave of attackers before the film’s final battle, Oz tells undercover CIA officer Sona that ‘a low fly-by [of F-15s] would put fear of God and the United States’ into the Libyan attackers. Such poetry – and yet that fly-by, and the fear of God and the United States, never comes. It’s the grunts – untethered to bureaucracy and specific organisations – against the world.
The language of cinema responds in kind to this rabid individualism. Across his filmography, Bay doesn’t miss the chance for cinematography that lionises the heroes of the story. In the tour around the diplomatic compound in the film’s first act, Tanto warns the security detail that the compound would be easy to breach in an attack, while Bay looks up at him in an extreme low-angle shot. Literally towering over weaker beings, his intelligent analysis is framed as a matter of physical stature. Later, when the compound is first attacked, Jack wanders out onto his terrace to display, in a magnificent medium shot, a torso fitting of a Greek god.
These are extreme examples, but extremism is Bay’s point. Hyper-masculinity is part and parcel of Bay’s heroic imagery, which is nothing new in American cinema. Still, its presence in a film as innovative in its relationship to image-making as this is made all the more explicit by Bay in his actual evocation of performative militarism:Tropic Thunder, a film about a group of Hollywood actors who go to film a Vietnam movie only to get sucked into actual warfare, plays on a TV in one scene, with the only lines heard – and spoken along to verbatim by the grunts – being Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘I know who I am! I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!’ Indeed, and such talk refashions American heroism as damn-near anti-war – a force only for rescuing those in peril than causing more of it. When Boon quotes from The Power of Myth, surely he must know he’s quoting from a book that theorises the construction of new mythologies for America. Perhaps those new mythologies are just the ones proselytised by Bay.
Writing in The National Review, Armond White draws attention to the performativity of the soldiers’ appearance, calling them ‘real life G.I. Joes’ and ‘anatomically correct dolls’. I would go one further. They are not only performers in the sense of appearance, but in their every action. As hired guns, they are only performers in the US-Libya conflict, which is ultimately revealed to be senseless and for no known cause. The film’s final scenes show valorised heroes of war in the grunts as they leave; but the scenes also show mothers and wives mourning the fallen Libyans outside the CIA base. ‘Your country’s gotta figure this shit out,’ Tanto says to the CIA’s Libyan translator as he leaves the base for the plane home. There’s no desire for more conflict here.
It should be noted that, even as the film expresses remorse for the countless Libyans lost in the attack, Bay still takes pleasure in showing the audience said attackers getting mown down by gunfire in increasingly creative moments of visual effects work, easily the most egregious and misguided aspect of the film. The valorisation of the dead only goes one way. The audience might get the chance to pay its respects to Libyans, but that doesn’t excuse Bay’s utilisation of the horror language of shadows moving slowly between flowing white sheets of plastic, to portray the Libyan approach towards the CIA base. Nor does this respect ultimately matter, as the final shots are of the CIA memorial wall and the two new stars added for Glen Doherty and Rone Woods. ‘For Glen and Rone’, the final title card reads, while the exact number of Libyans killed remains unknown.
And what of the individuals who come out the other side as either martyrs or heroes? Tanto is now a Second Amendment festishist’s hero and member of the American Legacy Center, a conservative organisation that pushed for the confirmation of Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Sean Smith, the technician who boosted the ambassador’s wi-fi in the film, and is shown (in another culturally potent moment) playing a first-person shooter video game before the compound is attacked, was a racist moderator on a web forum for several years, who once extolled the belief that the African continent would have been far worse off without colonialism. As with any propaganda, its ultimate outcome should be interrogated. ‘Just another Tuesday night in Benghazi,’ quips Jack as the grunts come across a guy watching TV just yards away from an open firefight. But it is no longer just another Tuesday night – it is now cemented in history that, 11 years to the day after 9/11, the US was attacked in another country and suffered fatalities at the hands of the attackers, all with only brief lip service paid to the events that surrounded the attack. How many times could 13 Hours be used as a bludgeon in arguments about US foreign policy that miss the key point – they shouldn’t be in those countries in the first place? One need only gesture in the general direction of the White House right now to understand the potency of 13 Hours and the Benghazi attack – or rather, one need only remember who almost won the White House four years ago. Then again, Trump or Clinton is Alien v Predator for the Libyans. As 13 Hours makes clear, whoever wins, they lose.
In Pat O’Neill’s The Decay of Fiction (2002) the dust-filled halls of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles are notoriously absent of any physical embodiment. The golden days of such a monolithic icon of Hollywood’s self-perceived grandeur are long gone, creeping camera pans and long dolly-ins emphasizing a crumbling carcass barely standing on its historical foundations. Nevertheless, within its disheveled frontages and desolated premises, the old hotel’s inhabitants don’t seem to fret or even notice the dismal state of the building. Like a typical haunting, the emanation of decades past ends up cloistered between the outdated decor. In this instance the unresting spirits are not those of grieving souls, but rather the specters of our collective memories of the moving image. Blonde dahlings in cocktail dresses and square-jawed men rocking trench coats exchange quippy one-liners in thick transatlantic accents, oblivious to their surroundings or the changing world outside; all the glitz and make-believe lessened by the fact that what’s in front will probably never be again.
As such, the barren structure whose mythology O’Neill so precisely evokes is not terribly different from the projection each one of us has of our old movie theater of reference closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of invoking a “general” legacy of the art form, these spaces are filled with communal and even personal memory. It’s true that the films themselves avoid totally fading away by mutating, giving into contemporary methods of consumption. However, some of its essence is invariably lost when lifted out of their inherent environment and switched to the fallacious comfort of a phone screen.
The act of cinema-going was always conceived as something akin to a willing exercise in submission. Traditional social behaviours are bypassed, and for 120 minutes (give or take) the senses are held hostage by what the screen radiates. As famously presented by Dziga Vertov in his seminal Man With A Movie Camera (1929), the natural endpoint of a film’s quest never really stood apart from its origins as a traveling funfair novelty. It’s only when the lights are dimmed and the multiple faces present get transfixed into the almost magical display in front of them that the possibilities of the artform really come to shine. In this Soviet landmark, phantasmagoria exudes from the idyllic excitement coming from the idea of motion pictures as the great popular spectacle, naturally drawing from one of the medium’s most prodigious periods of creative effervescence in the 1920s. Those are the kind of days that The Decay of Fiction seems to pine for with its nostalgic grasp to recollections lingering in the material world. Unfortunately, no matter how inscribed the images are in the collective unconsciousness behind a physical space, they still suffer from its degradation. These are fragments that belong to a type of filmmaking innate to the big screen, and without it, their temporal vulnerability comes to the forefront. The depressing sight of a crumbling movie theater develops then into a dual glimpse of the inert, as the old archaic shrine of the cinema and the gospel it has preached for generations both show signs of withering away.
Probably the most iconic portrayal of such an idea belongs to Tsai Ming-liang’s slow cinema classic Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). With an already established career showcasing inner spiritual turmoil through time stagnation and negative space, the Taiwanese maestro decided to switch his focus from the expressive visage of his muse Lee Kang-Sheng to the filthy seats rotting away in Taipei’s soon to be demolished Fu Ho Theater. Here, the setting and the real-life context around it are not just metatextual nuances, moreso the actual raison d’être of the project.
The existence of the film itself relies on these facts, shaping the cadence of every elegiac travelling, and making each static long take and mundane sound clip burst with impotence and dejection. Romantic reminiscence is thrown out the window as Tsai perpetuates the immanence of a dead entity in real time and with matter-of-factness. The lights are turned on one last time as the credits of the King Hu classic (1967) that the title refers to roll unceremoniously in the scatteredly populated theater. Unaware, the movie-goers have just witnessed the last living breath of an iconic urban space for culture, and simultaneously, of a previous understanding of an artform. What happens afterwards is really of no interest to Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Tsai’s contribution lies in sculpting the old arthouse in time. Acknowledging its demise, yet at the same time making sure its memory is kept as a register of what once was.
In exploring the idea of viewership as the final piece needed for a work of art to really exist in the world, Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma (2006) goes even further. The Argentine director sneaks on Argentino Vargas, as he attends a virtually empty screening of their previous collaboration, Los Muertos (2006). Bureaucratic sounds of printers and telephones occasionally irrupt the room and mesh with the rural atmosphere of Los Muertos, while the camera invasively centers Vargas’ stoic demeanor as he sees himself on screen. With no need to directly quote Barthes, Alonso makes a potent case of the viewer as auteur by just showing the intimate and unique relationship built between man and film when left to the mercy of an obscure room. Even in the case of the grand Sala Lugones in Buenos Aires, it still takes a pair of eyes glued to the screen in order to maintain the foundations of the edifice.
So what’s left when nobody’s watching? In many ways, it’s the natural cycle of things. Catalan Communications academic Xavier Romero cites art historian Élie Faure when mentioning how the architectural opulence of early century cinemas took the role left by churches when Nietzsche brought upon the death of their deity. Something else has now replaced the belief of the sacred nature of cinema, making the temples erected to its name a blatant anachronism. Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis (2008) takes the bleak approach of doubling-down on Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s cruising sequences, and making the theater in Papanga, Phillipines little more than a glorified motel. For David Lynch, both in Inland Empire (2006) and Twin Peaks: The Return’s “Episode 8” (2017), the cinema is a relic of the past whose only remaining function in the world is that of housing the spectres trapped in celluloid; some whose shadows still looms, and need to be eradicated in order to take the next step.
What we see from these films is that the sight of the desolated movie theater is understood by contemporary filmmakers less as the signal of distant, Omega Man-style apocalyptic fear, and more as an everyday reality inherent to society’s current spiral into oblivion. In some cases, like Uruguayan Federico Veiroj’s modern classic La vida útil (2010), it can even resemble a glimmer of hope. The real critic Jorge Jellinek plays a version of himself, forced to adjust to a new life after working 25 years in Montevideo’s cinematheque. Knowing of the nature of cinema as an art marked by a trajectory of successive expulsions and reinventions (from silent to talkies, black and white to color, academy ratio to cinemascope, film to digital, etc.), the film casts no doubt about the notion of it eventually finding a new way of molding and maintaining its essence. What it does put forward as something that needs to happen is the transformation of the viewer, since (paraphrasing Godard) the only possible story in cinema is the introspective one; experiencing art as a personal moment. In La vida útil, the closure of the cinematheque is seen as a big nostalgic landmark, and concurrently, it also means opportunity.
Be it the potential love story of Jorge, or the rebirth of a medium from its ashes, the power of absence is showing us that once we come to nothing, we have everything. It only remains for us to determine if we want to take those scruffy rooms and crumbling walls to erect the same altars again, or find a way to build something new from them.