The Devil and the Statue | Cinema Year One

Joseph Owen explores the camera apparatus in three early silent shorts.
Credit: George Méliès

Joseph Owen

A Flight from the Void

There is a man, standing, with a top hat and cane, gesticulating wildly. His appeals to the camera seem to grow more vociferous, but the viewer cannot hear him because the film is silent and its soundtrack consists of a jaunty, music hall staccato. Performing the extreme close-up par excellence, the camera enters the gaping mouth of our antagonist. We (the audience) and the photographer (the subjective perspective) fall into the dark void of his stomach. This state is momentary, before we are catapulted back out. The man is now grinning gleefully, close to laughing. The film is over. We look stupid. 

James Williamson’s The Big Swallow (1901) is absurd but comprehensible: it is an abstraction with obvious intent. The new technologies of cinema claim to render the modern human; in fact, these constitute a derisory conceit. The camera is an eye, is it? A neutral tool of rational perception? No, it is a flight from the void; it exposes rather than resolves the crisis of representation. At the start of the 20th century, authoritative images exist only in dispute. The dominant machine, of which the camera is emblematic, promises to rule without favour, but its power is insidious; it deceives the maker, the subject and the audience. Humans fear the vacuum, to the extent that they will cling to deceptive and ambiguous pictorial forms. 

This explains the seduction of mythic stories to illustrate the anxieties of the epoch. Georges Méliès produces one such tale in The Devil and the Statue (1901), a retelling of archetypal lovers and a transposition of Romeo and Juliet’s romance to Venice, where Romeo arrives on a gondola playing a lute, only to be interrupted by the frantic devil, who pursues Juliet across a plush palatial room. The less-than-two-minute narrative is processed almost entirely through a fixed perspective on the set design, inviting the viewer’s eyes to move from the window on the left-hand side, across to the hemicycle in the centre, and to the far right of the platform where a frozen Madonna waits to rescue the harried damsel and extinguish the devil.

The demonic depiction is startling. The ornate furnishings disappear to reveal the evil within. Through incipient visual effects trickery, the dancing devil expands to a great height before the Madonna intervenes, causing in him a voluminous shrinkage, generating a void of representation. This is the problem with resuscitating apparently abiding myths; they jar in the present, because time is out of joint, and the symbolic order has been shaken. The devil is lost in space; the fallen angel of our nightmares leaves behind a stage of black nothing, a scene of no-image. This is not Captain Ahab’s white whale, which, for all its philosophical might, still claims physical contours. This is closer to Beckett’s white wall, an implacable revelation of pure thought without detail or consequence, against which his eternally suffering subjects endlessly deteriorate. 

Nonetheless, the modern subject must cling to the hope of images; it must seek out new ones. In What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York (1901), directed by George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter, the camera sits on the pavement. It holds a perspective on the road and the passers-by populating the sidewalk. Men in suit attire stroll past while a horse and carriage pull away. A hot air grate rests flat and ominous in the foreground. On multiple occasions, people avoid it, which forms a prescient accumulation of the climactic act. A young couple comes into view, walking towards the camera. The scene is set; the woman, played by Florence Georgie, saunters over the grate, her dress billows out, the gust beneath sending her into a surprised chuckle, reserved for both the spectacle and social propriety, to gain the upper hand on the mocking audience, those in the film and out. 

The date of the recording reads 21st August, 1901. In cities such as New York, the modern formulations of technology, industry and economy are being expressed, the truths of the time taking root. How will the factories and the cogs and the workers and the commerce absorb the loss of old pictures, the demise of old authorial authority? What goes into all of that blank space, which once held the vestiges of representation? The reproduction of classic myths, advocated by Méliès, will be superseded, and the modernist ridicule of realism, propounded by Williamson, effaced from memory. That billowing dress, modestly blown upwards and comically pulled down, endures instead, retaining the force and potency of the era-defining image. Georgie’s silhouette stance, her hands pressing against the garment, then calcifies in the cultural consciousness. Transformed into Marylin Monroe’s angular pose in The Seven Year Itch (1955), it spawns afterlives upon afterlives, a repeated image of simple consumption, the icon of a new century that fills the representative void, now temporarily hidden and, for the time being, forgotten.

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A Roman Orgy | Cinema Year One

Credit: Gaumont

Tom Atkinson

The day I began writing this essay, I spent the morning listening to Billie Eilish in my iTunes window, reading a book on Japanese film scholarship in the first half of the 20th century on a PDF for my dissertation, and intermittently checking off my daily tasks in my Notes app, before circling back to the Eilish album and curiously searching up what Robert Christgau said about it when it dropped. An email notification appeared in the top corner of my screen informing me of some Galaxy Quest (1997) screenings at the newly reopened Prince Charles Cinema. All this happened within the however-many-square-inches my laptop screen takes up in my field of vision, which I’d brought to my university library to do my first bit of out-of-house work in many a month. 

In the afternoon, I opened YouTube and watched two time-lapse videos before finding Louis Feuillade’s 1911 short film A Roman Orgy. Sitting in the recommended videos sidebar were a human-interest video about a man in an iron lung; the Matthew McConaughey lunch scene from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); a World War II training film from an archive channel; and a sequence from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) with 153,000 views. The transfer on YouTube is surprising for featuring decent music – most silent films restored for the modern day are so heinously soundtracked that I have to find looped stock music to play underneath, or simply mute the thing altogether. It’s also one of multiple Feuillade films on the platform, though you wouldn’t know from typing ‘roman orgy’ in the search bar, as I naively did when first seeking it. The impression you would get instead is that the French fantastical realist was a director of softcore pornography and amateur nude videos, all of which are cobbled together into playlists with titles helpfully supplemented by exclamations of “*HD1080P*” and “Uncensored”. 

Then again, Feuillade was a prolific creative. If some lost Feuillade porno serial were unearthed, it would be unsurprising given that he made a staggering 80 films a year between 1905 and 1914. His turn as a filmmaker coincided with the shift from programmes featuring dozens of short film strips to the more conventional feature film that was the norm in exhibition. In recent years, of course, media ecology has mutated into a multi-valent environment both inside and outside the movie theatre on screens large and small. Yet, there is something in Feuillade’s work generally that parallels the current state of cinephilia quite strikingly. There’s the obvious comparison between his multi-layered, innovative serial films like Fantômas (1913-14) and the endless franchise shenaniganising of the Marvel films. But there is also something drawing together the 1911 viewing experience with the very same 110 years later, exemplified in the particular conditions of watching A Roman Orgy on YouTube.

A moral tale in the tradition of classic myths, and with all the debauchery one might expect from such a thing within 1911’s social constraints, A Roman Orgy concerns the last days of pampered, bratty, teenage Roman empress Heliogabalus. Her exploits (reportedly, Heliogabalus preferred female pronouns, sufficient reason for me to refer to her as ‘empress’) were far wilder than Feuillade suggests. She would play-act as a sex worker to solicit the queer gaze of her male staff, and would probably not have you in her immediate circle of friends if you couldn’t perform sexually. Here, the empress is merely a cis man engaging in such transgressive acts as – egad! – watching a woman dancing fully-clothed and listening to music.

In this case, Heliogabalus merely runs a debauched court of giggling drunkards, by Feuillade’s measure, who are only to be met with their comeuppance by the empress’ own hand. After feeding a handmaid to a pack of lions for carelessly scratching the empress during a nail-clipping session, said felines are then released onto unsuspecting revellers. The empress is then dispatched by soldiers fed up with the tomfoolery of her reign.

Feuillade’s compositions have the beauty and clarity of paintings. Figures are arranged along axes vertical and horizontal, along a spectrum from close up to far in the distance for a series of shots with immense depth and structure. He is keen to maintain that painterly orderliness, too – movement is employed very precisely and only as necessary to give these illustrations of reality texture and momentum. There is a humming bustle of crowd activity underlying almost all the frames, but when movement becomes more pronounced, it is always with purpose. When the empress brings one of her favourite dancers through the frame, for example, this movement ends with a new configuration of the characters in the shot, the moving figure having filled a precise gap in the tableaux. Meanwhile, if there is crowd movement, it is synchronised, with the flair and energy of dance or theatre, filling spaces Feuillade has strategically left in the frame for them before emptying it again. Even on YouTube, where quality is a real Russian roulette of 360p duds and 1080p silver bullets and where Feuillade’s crisp frames become abstractions of pixelated colour smeared across the screen, it’s not hard to see his gift for beautified configuration. (Cursory searches indicate that the cleanest version one can see of this film is as an extra on Artificial Eye’s DVD release of Les Vampires [1915].)

By the time the Gaumont-adorned “THE END” card appears, YouTube has already decided what I will watch next, even as I have opted to let it decide. The autoplay button is perhaps the most potent symbol for the inherent tension in computer usage between the autonomy of the user and their subservience to a processing system that can do a million things faster than any human can do just one. Am I doing the 2021 equivalent of buying a ticket to a picture show by pressing autoplay and letting YouTube do the work for me? Is that little grey button, a binary on/off function, the modern-day programmer? 

The short answer is, of course not. I can change tack any time I want, and I did, almost immediately taking a trip to the home kitchen of Houston-based YouTube chef Joshua Weissman, Food YouTube’s resident film bro (you can ultimately agree that a homemade wagyu burger or a Martin Scorsese film is probably “better” than a Big Mac or Scooby Doo [2002], but you just wish he’d calm down about it, you know?) But the longer answer, though it is also “no”, still erases the sort of boundaries and restraints – geography, how much time one can spare, the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow – that defined the classic role of the cinema programmer. 

Not only that, but in 1911, a projectionist would know the film’s end was in sight by the film strip’s sharp-tongued edge flying towards the projector. In 2021, it’s when the viewer themself sees the grey buffer bar gets overwhelmed by the signature bright YouTube red. We are the makers of our own cinematic destiny, so to speak. And what of the inhuman recommendations of the algorithm, jazzed up with phrases such as “We think you’ll like…” to make it a little chummier? There’s certainly something of that intuitive finger-on-pulse clairvoyance that comes with being a truly cutting-edge programmer, knowing what an audience might like before they’ve even made the choice to book a ticket. But, while a programmer could absorb statistics into their programming, the algorithm is all numbers and pure process. It’s almost too exact, and borne solely of capitalist interests without the human factor. A real programmer might have to compromise between the two, but better there was some of the latter than none of it at all. 

How then to take this move towards being our own programmers? Programming is a key curatorial function in film culture, the human conduit that, in its most idealistic sense, would filter out the shit while also reflecting the idiosyncrasies of both the programmers themselves and the audience they have hopefully cultivated. (Case in point: the forward- and fast-thinking team at Another Screen, who had an entire season of films made by Palestinian women on their platform less than a fortnight after the Israeli storming of the al-Aqsa mosque.) But when the most established programming minds in this country – the BFI – can get away with an entire musicals season without a single Indian picture, and the screenings I’ve leapt at most readily have been the result of reaching out to other people, the utility of being one’s own programmer becomes all the more apparent.

Not only that, but the interconnectivity of our viewing, only now becoming diversified again in practice with the reopening of movie screens, allows for any viewer to forage for details external to the film itself. Trivia, cultural references, good criticism if you know where to look – without these, A Roman Orgy is a handsomely shot ethics tale by the then-head of Gaumont studio. But in context, it becomes a strangely conservative, edge-smoothing portrait of an empress who, by all accounts, was a fascinating, multi-layered public figure, whose sexual openness and queerness was only matched by her unrelenting cruelty towards those she disliked (the bit in the film about lions being unleashed on guests is, supposedly, true). Then there’s the opportunity to go further, to finally start working one’s way through Fantômas or Les Vampires, or to keep on the theme of Roman luridness and find Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979), which sits in truncated form on the pornography website xHamster. Or, like me, you can go back to those time-lapse videos where someone has taken a picture of themselves every day for 20 years, going literal on the time-travelling aspect of interconnected viewing that can send one back to the Roman empire, to 1911, or to last week. The choice, thankfully, is yours. 

This essay owes a tremendous debt to Rachel Rabbit White at Vice, whose article ‘The Queer Roman Orgy Where Everyone Was Suffocated By Rose Petals’ provided the background detail for Heliogabalus.

A previous version of this essay inaccurately recounted remarks by AS Hamrah. It has since been updated to remove reference to Hamrah entirely, as the inaccuracy changed parts of the essay.

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Hamlet ’21 | Cinema Year One

Credit: Art-Film GmbH

Cathy Brennan

This is an essay about two people. The first is an American railway worker and autodidact who had some ideas about Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy. The second is a Danish woman from a working class family who ended up becoming one of the first international stars of the screen. These two disparate figures would come together in a 1921 German adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a curious twist that it announces in a bombastic opening title crawl.

“Recently the American Professor Vining has given us a new interpretation. The key to Hamlet was, until now, a deep secret — Hamlet was really a woman!” The crawl is alluding to The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (1881), a book by that railway worker Edward P. Vining. The problem has to do with anxieties throughout the 19th century that Hamlet was really a manlet. Beginning in the late 18th century, performances of Hamlet started to emphasise the title character’s introspection over his role as an avenger. 19th century attitudes towards gender and the rise of sexology led to Hamlet being increasingly read as feminine. Vining’s book, with its thesis that Hamlet is really a woman, takes the Victorian era’s gender trouble with the Danish prince and makes it about sexual fact.

The resulting argument reveals more about Vining’s own sexism and homophobia than anything else. A significant part of his argument rests on the close relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. Vining describes a speech Hamlet makes about Horatio as “characterised by a warmth of fondness and admiration far greater than is natural between friends of the same sex”. It’s safe to say that Vining had some bizarre ideas on the differences between men and women, in one instance claiming that Hamlet has “a woman’s daintiness and sensitiveness to the weather and to perfumes.” In a way, Vining is precursor to those angry guys who post online rants about feminism turning men into soy boys (Hamlet) and beta cucks (Horatio).

From what can be gleaned about Vining, he was a proficient baker of Hot Takes, following his book on Hamlet with a 787-page Orientalist tome about a fifth century Buddhist pilgrimage from Afghanistan to America (An Inglorious Columbus). Though comically outdated today, this take on Hamlet rippled out into the wider culture. Vining was even name-dropped in James Joyce’s Ulysses by the critic character John Engilton: “The bard’s countrymen are rather tired perhaps of our brilliancies of theorising. I hear that an actress played Hamlet for the fourhundredandeigth time last night in Dublin. Vining held the prince was a woman.” This is a reference to Millicent Bandmann-Palmer, who performed as Hamlet hundreds of times. International star Sarah Bernhardt first took to the stage as the Danish prince in 1899, and one of the earliest surviving filmed Shakespeare performances is a 1900 reel of Bernhardt performing the climactic duel scene. By 1921, when the Vining-inspired German film adaptation of Hamlet was released, having a woman play the title role was not in itself a revolutionary casting choice. What sets it apart is its notion that the character of Hamlet is a woman. 

The Danish actor Asta Nielsen plays the role of Hamlet in this adaptation. However, her interpretation of the character is not a carbon copy of Vining’s. Through her performance, she suggests a more complex understanding of gender. It is unlikely that she would have shared in Vining’s rather narrow perspective. Nielsen’s life would probably fly in the face of Vining’s conception of proper womanhood, having had a child out of wedlock at twenty-one while still working towards a career in the theatre. She was born to working-class parents in 1881. At that time in Denmark, campaigns for women’s rights had gained long-term momentum: women started being admitted to universities in 1875 and by 1915 were granted full suffrage. Nielsen’s first husband, and long-time collaborater, Urban Gad, was the son of the feminist writer Emma Gad. By the time of Hamlet’s production, Nielsen was an experienced performer nearing her forties. In fact, it was the first feature from her newly formed production company Art-Film. Given the social milieu she grew up in, the personal connections she would have cultivated, and the independence she had carved for herself as an artist, Nielsen’s relationship to Vining’s work is best understood as a point of departure rather than as absolute scripture.

It takes the film twenty minutes before it reaches the point where the action of the play starts. The film takes time to set up Hamlet’s circumstances. Her mother Gertrude gave birth while her father, old Hamlet, was wounded in battle against old Fortinbras, the King of Norway. Thinking her husband is on the verge of death, Gertrude is advised by her nurse to announce the baby girl as a boy to ensure the line of succession. After a miraculous recovery, the King returns to Gertrude by which time the baby’s gender has been announced to the people and so the royal couple agree to keep up the pretence. 

The patriarchal custom of male succession enforces itself onto Hamlet’s body from birth, circumscribing her life thenceforth. The film then goes on to depict Hamlet’s adolescence as the King and Queen send her off to study in Wittenberg. At this moment the film makes it explicit that Gertrude and Claudius are banging behind the King’s back. At Wittenberg, Hamlet meets Horatio, Laertes, and buries the hatchet with the young Fortinbras, the son of her father’s old adversary. 

The Wittenberg segment is important because it establishes Hamlet’s crush on Horatio. Crucially, it also shows that Hamlet’s angst predates her father’s death, opening up new avenues of inquiry into its source. Laertes is introduced as a perpetual student; a true ladiator who always gets the quad vods in. When Laertes goes out with a group of women (after borrowing money from his prince), Hamlet forlornly watches from their dormitory window. The intertitle “inhibited wings” speaks to Hamlet’s sense of isolation from her peers, a feeling that she is Different from the Others. That silent impulse to hide who she truly is from her peers is easy to read in terms of cis heteronormativity, those unspoken codes of existence so thoroughly drilled into us as children that it seems instinctual despite the uncertainties that may plague one’s mind.

When reading Vining’s book, it is easy to scoff at him from our vaunted 21st century perspective. His ideas about gendered characteristics seem so much a product of the 19th century to appear absurdly comical when they are dressed in scholarly vernacular. Given how the academic obsession with gender continues to rage among charlatans, perhaps one shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Nonetheless, Nielsen’s film represents the triumph of cinema over the written word as it makes Vining’s theoretical musings palatable, encouraging audiences to ponder their implications on a deeper, more personal level. Such a victory is down to the innate power of silent cinema as an expressive force, and Nielsen’s talent as an actor. Her Hamlet can hardly be called dainty. She is not a woman because of her love for Horatio, rather because of something within herself, a subjectivity that belongs to her alone. It is in the ambiguities of shadowy gestures that the audience may find liberation from the prescriptive hang-ups of an amateur scholar from the 19th century.

Writing for Sight & Sound in 1973, Danish essayist Elsa Gress described Nielsen as “the force that shaped the language of the new, raw film medium with her unique blend of intuitive spontaneity and documentary observation.” Norwegian writer Thomas Krag was equally vigorous in praising Nielsen, saying that “she tore a piece of quivering human flesh out and held it toward the light for all to see.” What both appraisals hint at in their mentions of “documentary observation” and “quivering human flesh” is Nielsen’s ability to root her art to human experience. Beneath the inherent artifice of life etched in celluloid must be the seed of something genuinely felt.

When Hamlet plots to reveal Claudius’ guilt, there is an exquisite moment that harks back to the earlier scene in Wittenberg where she gazes out the window. With palpable melancholy, Nielsen’s Hamlet peers down from a shadowy room at the bustling royal court below. Here, that feeling of alienation from the realm of male heterosexualtity is given a far deeper meaning. Thrust into manhood from birth but truly a woman, Hamlet is not only inhibited in her sexuality, she must also bear the weight of expectation from a whole kingdom, from a people who can never truly know her.

Nielsen’s androgynous performance evokes the cultural figure of the Neue Frau, later exemplified by Otto Dix’s portrait of journalist Sylvia von Harden in 1926. This pleasingly clashes with the other costuming and performance choices in the film. The clothing of Horatio and Claudius are more period appropriate compared to the modernism of Nielsen’s Hamlet. Horatio’s clothing is florid and poofy whereas she dons sleek, austere black garb, coming closer to Caligari’s somnambulist killer than a medieval prince. While the rest of the cast revel in grandiose gesticulations and contorted facial expressions that are more suited to the stage, Nielsen exhibits much more control in her movements. Through both her dress and acting, Nielsen is, much like that Hall & Oates song, out of touch and out of time.

The way the film layers these signs that Hamlet is alien to the world and the people that surround her, speaks to a thick knotting of binaries: men and women, stage and screen, history and the contemporary. Watching Nielsen’s Hamlet one hundred years later in the UK, there is a powerful kinship to be found in her performance, particularly in those moments when she gazes out the window at a world she can never be a part of. When so much of British media is dedicated to framing trans people in terms of an impending threat to children, women, humanity itself, it can easily instill despair.

The experiment in Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet yields fascinating results. It is a work onto which individuals can interface with their own socialised notions of gender. Reaching out to his dying friend, Horatio learns the truth about Hamlet by accidentally grabbing some tit. In sorrow he exclaims: “Only death betrays your secret! That you had the golden heart of a woman! Too late, to be lovers, too late!” Perhaps the true tragedy of this Hamlet is that Horatio didn’t get to nut in his best friend.

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Á Nous la Liberté | Cinema Year One

Credit: Universal

Ben Flanagan

What happened over the years? More images were consumed ever more quickly by fewer people. The world of cinema (film rotas, news, ideas, trends and people) accelerated and then started to race…

This loss of the feeling of the present is obviously the great phenomenon of the media. We aren’t facing things anymore, yet we are unable to shake off their image, as if it were a friendly ontological glue. The urgency to see a film is reduced, and it may eventually result in a reduced urgency to make films. We’ve entered the era of recycling.”

Serge Daney’s writing in 1984 from Cannes (recently given a lively translation into English by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan) covers the same hysterical dismay at film culture that I feel whenever I’m at an event. Particularly in cliquey London, where the film scene, gentrified, overpriced and rarely risky or political, becomes a smug feedback loop, one begins to wonder if the film is even projected on the screen at all. Instead, after spending £13.95 on a ticket for Minari and the same again on M&Ms and a beer, our subconscious realises the error of leaving the house. It shuts down, and tells us that we had a culturally enriching experience at Crouch End Picturehouse. 

Better, I think, as the city reopens, to stay at home with a fibre optic connection and Letterboxd’s ‘sorted by year: 1931’ feature. Passing myself off as an expert in the period, which I feel entitled to do as our last issue, ‘Horny’, covered the same period, I was dismayed to find how many recyclable images were infecting viewers’ minds 90 years ago. Perhaps audiences didn’t have the vocabulary to describe their kampf, but as a member of the British Film Criticism Establishment (BFCE) I believe I can elucidate.


Boy, what a year at the movies! 


1931 was a breakthrough year for French cinema, and poetic realism in particular. 

Renoir’s first two sound films introduced the world to a master: On a purge bébé – a farce about forcing a child to take a shit – and La Chienne – a genuine example of Renoir’s tactile vision and cross-society balance. Of the first film, I struggled to understand Renoir’s obsession with the bodies of children. Just let him take a shit, you creep! La Chienne literally translates as ‘The Bitch’. Typical French misogyny, and a film which clearly takes great pleasure in the pain of women. No wonder Fritz Lang (whose M is as creepy as On a purge bébé), another lady-hater, would remake the film as Scarlet Street (1945). 

Realism was a force this year. F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu has the striking feeling of viewing cave paintings. But, as Joseph Owen explained in Issue 2, their ethnographic eye is as flat as any caveside scrawl. And speaking of sus, in 1931 Bella Lugosi first brought Frankenstein to the screen for James Whale. His ableist, mental-health-erasure vision of the monster has nothing on De Niro’s more layered turn for Branagh in 1994. 

While a shiver rolled down our collective spines in Frankenstein, Heat beats off the screen in Von Sternberg’s Dishonored. It’s true that Marlene Dietrich is every bit the powerhouse, but her total control is punished by woman-hating Joseph Von. It doesn’t vibe with my lived experiences in Britain going to university, clubs, Socialist Worker meetings, or the workplace.  In the real world, women are always treated with respect. Within 10 years Dietrich would be a war hero, for God’s sake! Dishonored’s lack of realism (there’s no way a whole army could be seduced by someone showing little more than a bit of ankle – for an even worse version of this see DW Griffiths’ Judith of Bethulia. For a realistic – but still icky due to its star! – version, see New Rose Hotel) belies its lack of heart. 

Better, is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, perhaps his definitive Little Tramp film. It captured a floundering, suffering society during the Great Depression, and one man’s attempt at self-sufficiency within it. Chaplin, a twink and a snack, and a man hounded by J. Edgar’s FBI with pedophile allegations, didn’t even receive an Oscar for his work as a creep who gaslights a blind woman into falling for him. Hollywood preferred King Vidor’s sentimental The Champ, a template for awards friendly fare to follow. 

There is a long gap between the opening titles and the first shot of À Nous la Liberté. In the darkness, we wait, before bursting into a parallel tracking shot of toy horses being made. It then runs back, revealing the prisoners at work. Sure, this is a beautiful illustration of how industry benefits from the enforced labour of prisoners and corrupts society to such a degree that even your child’s playtime is built with blood, but when I was 19 I ate a sheet of acid and watched Modern Times, which has similar visuals, is set in the future, and I soundtracked to Future. These days, the technical achievements of the past are not necessarily enough for the attention deficit critic. 

 À Nous la Liberté is enjoyable enough. As prisoners Louis and Émile (Henri Marchand and Raymond Cordy) gently scrape away at the prison bars with a piece of wire, Clair’s tactile close ups of hands anticipate Bresson’s own captive action movie, A Man Escaped (1956). Only by watching Clair do we understand the forge between Bresson and Paddington 2 (2017), the cunty bear from whom we will never be free. The texture of Clair’s prison walls are as delectable as Brendon Gleeson’s cakes, the shadows as striking as Bresson’s prayers to the heavens. 

Freedom, though, means a larger prison, and less community. Sound had brought a level of realism that could pull cinema nearer to our reality. But Clair’s film shows how our reality can be heightened. Not only through striking, surrealist photography, but through a schizophrenic sound design that reflects the acousmetre of our world. Between factories, prison, high society hotel life. Clair visits the same locations as Vidor, Renoir, Chaplin et al, and presents us with perhaps the definitive film of 1931. But I’ve got to be honest, I’d rather watch The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) again, to get ready for Wes Anderson’s new Cannes title. See you on the Croisette! 

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

The Strawberry Blonde | Cinema Year One

Credit: Warner Bros.

Patrick Preziosi

Raoul Walsh exists as a platonic ideal of inarguably masculine classic Hollywood, his own roughneck joie de vivre bustling through nearly every film he touched. What gets lost in our cultural tunnel-vision, ushered along by equally superficial and limiting buzz terms, is the romantic lure of nostalgia, and how it engenders this specific adventurousness, even if the two terms taken together are thought to be relatively paradoxical. Walsh is a director of men in action, but a high-seas caper (1952’s The World In His Arms) differs from a prohibition-era gangster film (1939’s The Roaring Twenties) which itself isn’t exactly comparable to an Errol Flynn-led WWII drama (1945’s Objective, Burma!), and so on and so forth. After all, would you be pining for the daunting and unknown beyond the horizon if you were otherwise inundated with melancholy about the vicissitudes of time? Well, why wouldn’t you be?

A typical Walsh film surveys some sort of upheaval, which can provide both negative and positive aftereffects: Gentleman Jim (1942) traces an endearingly arrogant amateur boxer’s rise to notoriety; They Drive By Night (1940) details a nightmarish evolution from working class exhaustion to middle class deceit and backstabbing; The Man I Love (1947) narrates a long-delayed return to a family home that is now awash in noirish bleakness. Whatever the outcome, there are still those attendant discombobulations, the kind that engender––and even goad on––a certain wistfulness, lazy thoughts of time passed. The Strawberry Blonde, from 1941, inverts this formula, resulting in an oxymoronic (though no less fascinating) descriptor: disorienting stasis. 

Sometimes the nostalgia is Walsh’s own, sometimes it’s his characters; in the case of The Strawberry Blonde, these remembrances are shared between creator and film. James Cagney plays small time dentist Biff Grimes, who, in the beginning of the film, is wiling away yet another discontented Sunday in the gay New York City of the late 1890s/early 1900s, provoking the stuck-up college students nextdoor for a bit of repression-relieving, knuckleheaded excitement before his routine promenade with wife Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland). Walsh made period pieces before and after The Strawberry Blonde (some, like 1933’s much looser, and no less essential The Bowery, even surveying the same exact setting ), but its framing device is an anomaly, jumping from Biff’s as-yet-to-be-elucidated bitterness to the collective knockabout good-spiritedness of some years prior. Cagney retains his character’s intensity, but has more external, and even positive (some only ostensibly so) recipients for such potency: he’s studying by mail to become a dentist; his father (the always welcome Arthur Hale), affable and loving, is also always courting other men’s wives, and getting fired from jobs he only barely holds onto to begin with; he’ll fight with anyone asking for it (according to him, a lot do); and, like many, Cagney is in love with the eponymous strawberry blonde, Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth). 

Biff grabs at any potential to get closer with Virginia, which includes aligning himself with local, glad-handing schemer, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), who clinches a double date with the neighborhood crush, and her friend, Amy. With the foreknowledge of Amy and Biff’s eventual union––and in its brief depiction, their possible, wedlocked monotony––it’s only a matter of time before Virginia herself no longer figures into the equation. Still, a date between the aspiring dentist and the strawberry blonde occurs, although its pleasures are mostly skin-deep, a visit to the Statue of Liberty only really producing a pile of banana peels (Virginia refuses to participate in the accompanying picnic), and dinner racks up a bill and promise of a later date that is––for the audience––unsurprisingly canceled. Amy’s estimable self-possession and fitful neuroticism once terrified Biff, but such singular confidence makes possible her patient tenderness, which suits her husband-to-be, as she’s unperturbed by their general parsimoniousness, the dentist-in-waiting forced to pay the bills moonlighting as a milkman. He later joins the affluent Hugo––now married to Virginia––in “business”, although he’s really the fall-guy for all the corners cut by his executive, one which even results in a collapsed worksite that kills his father. 

Biff’s simmering resentment now has its reasonable undergirding, and in one swift, present-day moment of singular violence, all is resolved (it’s too satisfyingly spontaneous to spoil here), the spell of nostalgia dispelled. 

Walsh’s producer at Warner Brothers, Hal Wallis frequently bellyached over the director’s use of close-ups and the way he vigorously edited within unbroken sequences, which at least partially ensured a preserved vision when the reels were handed over to the editors. When it came to The Strawberry Blonde, Wallis complained that the frequent tight shots of actors’ visages broke the evocative allure of the past, especially when attention towards the period appropriate sets is practically discouraged. Sure, there are gas-lamps and horse and buggy carriages, but Walsh’s nostalgia is more gestural: the wafting notes of a street band’s rendition of “The Band Played On” is what inspires Biff’s memory whirlpool, but much of what he conjures is tethered to people rather than places. The production design isn’t anonymous by any means––it fulfills its functional role perfectly, housing all the interactions and habits now untenable for Biff, freighted with a mature kind of yearning. Never is it implied that regression is possible or desired; the real challenge is to then transcend acknowledgement of such. 

The Strawberry Blonde proffers an old saw, but doesn’t belabor it. Looking backwards to move forwards, etc. Walsh always found his films’ beating hearts in his attraction to precariousness, the stimulating risk that everything could come crashing down on his characters. Here, the ratio of emotional to physical ramifications skews more towards the former than in other Walsh films, Biff’s vaporous past nevertheless sirening him backwards. Then, the spirit of Walsh’s much-loved and long-since-passed mother, embodied purely by de Havilland, yanks him back. Belonging to a group of films that inspired a resurgence for a career that was trending downwards, The Strawberry Blonde identifies and sympathizes with the nostalgists, before shaking them loose of their sentimentality, not exactly gently, but with love nonetheless.

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Olivia | Cinema Year One

Credit: Filmsonor

Anna Devereux

In Olivia (1951, dir. Jacqueline Audry), we find our teenage heroine (Marie-Claire Olivia) in a French boarding school in the 1890s. The English Olivia, used to strict governesses and regimented school days, is welcomed with open arms by her classmates and enjoys new-found freedoms, such as being allowed to roam the grounds as she pleases and take library books up to her room, a room she has all to herself. She is also quickly engulfed by the romance of her school, perpetuated by students and staff alike. Mlle Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle Cara (Simone Simon), the two headmistresses, are at once partners and antagonists, occupied less with teaching than with charming their students, splitting the school into warring parties depending on which Mlle they are loyal to. Cara appears to be on the losing side.

Based on the novel by Dorothy Bussy (1949), Jacqueline Audry’s film was released at a symbolic turning point between the historical and the contemporary: the 1950s. Equidistant from the Edwardians and the Millennials, this decade saw the emergence of the teenager and the Cold War, when modern culture, propelled by two world wars, began to embrace technology and hurtled away from the romantic pastoral visions depicted in Olivia.

Olivia first joins Camp Cara, attending to her headmistress in her private rooms, delighting in the tasks of nursing this glamorous woman who is mostly prevented, apparently by ill health, from leaving her chaise longue. Romance transcends the school: students are taught with passion, even at meals they are encouraged to savour and refine their tastes. Truly this is an enviable education, filled with various entertainments: trips to Paris, a costumed ball at Christmas, poetry recitation in front of Mlle Julie’s fire. Here, the fatal combination of Andromaque and Julie’s enchanting performance secure Olivia’s devotion to her, and a switching of allegiances.

Olivia bears the influence of Mädchen in Uniform (1931). Leontine Sagan’s harsher film presents a similar story of love between student and teacher amidst the poverty, depression, and increasing militarisation of interwar Germany. One student remarks: “Some girls’ parents aren’t well off any more,” following a scene where the formidable headmistress Fräulein von Nordeck (Emilia Unda) declares “Through discipline and hunger, hunger and discipline, we shall be great again. Or not at all.”

Despite the difference in circumstances, Mädchen, like Olivia, upholds a proud belief in love between women, and rejects its othering or fetishisation by a patriarchal system. When it is suggested to Mädchen’s Manuela (Hertha Thiele) that she ought to cure herself of her feelings towards a teacher, she replies: “Cured? Of what?” She has no understanding that her desires for another woman could be thought of as wrong. That the same-sex attractions of these girls – whether platonic, romantic, or a burning crush – are taken seriously by both films, is a mark of respect.

Audry’s film was released around the same time that Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain would have enrolled in a convent school in County Monaghan, where she too experienced deep emotions, both for older girls and the nuns who taught her. She documented these in her memoir, Are You Somebody? (1996), where she describes the “romantic system” at her school, a structure of adoration marked by swooning faints and gift giving so alike to the culture at Mlle Julie’s school. O’Faolain impresses upon her reader that “The emotions we felt as schoolgirls were volatile and exaggerated and they have always been despised by the world. But they were not trivial.” Her account shows how these intimate domestic histories recorded by women, fictional or not, are so valuable for taking both queer and women’s spaces out of the shaming, fetishising hands of men:

 “Those words and concepts that will be lost for ever when women my age die, because no one values them enough to record them. […] They were not a mere substitute for what we would have been doing with boys if we weren’t in boarding-school, which is what the patriarchy has always arrogantly presumed.”

Olivia also refuses the trivialisation of same-sex attraction, documenting and revelling in a wealth of emotions, embracing both the euphoric and the tragic. In the final act, tragedy comes in full force, when Mlle Cara commits suicide and, in her devastation, Julie declares that she will leave the school. In her final meeting with the devoted Olivia, Julie cannot cope with the weight of emotion she has inspired, in the girl or in Cara: she rejects Olivia, who leaves in tears. Yet, although the warring affections of the headmistresses have sparked disaster as well as an end to the good old days with the school now coming under control of the severe Frau Riesener, the final note of the film rejects shame, just as O’Faolain did.

As Olivia is being driven from the school, Victoire (Yvonne de Bray), the frank-speaking cook, declares that “later, Olivia, well, in a while, you’ll see you’ll remember us with fondness. All of us.” Her words are a testament to the rejection of shame and to embracing love in all its forms, even when it results in tragedy, and they echo in O’Faolain’s anxieties about the past: “It does frighten me that I remember the bad times rather than the good ones.”

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Il Posto | Cinema Year One

Credit: Janus Films

Alonso Aguilar

In the first scene of Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961), protagonist Domenico (Sandro Panseri) lies beneath his bed sheets with his eyes wide open. The lighting suggests it might be just around dawn, yet the working class studio flat he shares with his family is already brimming with life. His mother fixes his father’s lunch, while the latter gets ready for work as they both discuss their son’s upcoming application for a Milan company’s recruitment call, a golden opportunity for social mobility. Domenico’s parents seem unaware that he’s listening, but his passive acceptance makes it feel like everything’s already been determined. Why would he intervene if he really has no say? After all, the place he’s applying to is one of those that “if you get in there, you’ve got a job for life”, as stated by his mother. No matter how much he frowns at his younger brother, his book strap has already been passed over to him. Why would a working adult need it anyway? 

Whether he’s ready or not, consenting or not, Domenico’s new life is already lined up waiting for him, and there really isn’t any time to get around and think about the implications. He walks reluctantly towards the bus stop in his oversized white-collar attire, probably knowing that the next time he takes these same steps, nothing will feel the same. 

In a vacuum, this sequence might read counterintuitively as the opening for a film dealing with the transition towards adulthood, as it mostly mirrors what tends to be expected from the grand climactic conclusion of a traditional coming-of age-story. But apart from some superficial common elements, Olmi’s sophomore effort is clearly going for something else. Instead of romanticizing the inherent graciousness of a simpler life, Il Posto focuses on the nuts and bolts of the transition process itself, shining a light on the dry and dehumanizing stroll that follows the usual fade to black. 

In this sense, the film portrays as much an intimate retelling of a young man’s hesitant embrace of the status quo, as a wider case study on the impact of utilitarianism on the many lives it promised to improve. This new compass for Western society brushed over the war-torned urban facades of classic Neorealist fables, renewing them as industrial complexes and monolithic bureaucracies. Even if unquestionably indebted to many of the aesthetic nuances that characterized the aforementioned cinematic world-shaking movement of the previous decade, the way that Olmi’s narrative is framed is also notoriously singular in its approach.

As with other Neorealist classics like Rome, Open City (1945) and Umberto D. (1952), Il Posto delves into the obligatory exploration of the laborers’ social milieu. The dust roads that lead towards shared living quarters in the outskirts of Lombardia are detailed by the subtle pans of Lamberto Caimi’s camerawork, the same that later corners Domenico in a cheap café by cloistering the frame with the fold-up newspapers and big-shouldered suits of his new colleagues in the workforce. Nevertheless, these pictoric landmarks exist as more than merely contextual grounding. For Olmi, they’re an extension of Domenico’s perspective, even if only tenuously linked to where Panseri’s wide-eyed visage lies in the shot.

The filmmaker and the protagonist’s stoic observation melds over time, colliding in an intimate and almost voyeuristic point of view of their surroundings as refractions of an uncertain emotional landscape. There’s a certain lushness in how some of the famous Neorealist-adjacent filmmakers constructed their mise-en-scene that is noticeably absent from Olmi. Be it Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, or even Rossellini, there’s always a graceful aura that elevates their images beyond the merely expressionistic, towards a more abstracted preciousness; a feel for the harmonic and the elegant that transcends their subject at hand. That’s never the case in Il Posto, which is not to say there’s a lack of delicacy in its formal presentation. Bodies inhabit the screen in constant tension with the oppressive architecture around them; yet the focus always lies in the former and their different degrees of discomfort, the perspective always grounded in a palpable feel for humanity. 

This leads to the distinctiveness of the film’s setting in itself. By the late ‘50s, Neorealism had somewhat vanished from the spotlight, mainly due to a changing cultural climate in Italy that recontextualized how these depictions of the perils of the proletariat were perceived. The moral anguish that burst from the dreary sceneries of a reconstructed post-WWII Western society had been rapidly replaced by a yearning for prosperity. Examples of economic expansion began to pop all around the globe, and a collective hope for rises in income levels and quality of life diminished the will to dwell in the despairing portraits of many post-war cinephile favorites like Film Noir, British kitchen sink realism and Robert Bresson’s austere humanism. 

Like many other cinemas, mainstream Italian films went the optimistic and easy-going route with the now iconic Commedia all’Italiana, but the changing tides also shook up the methods of most celebrated Italian auteurs. The initial premise of social concern that gave birth to Neorealism switched gears towards a different rendering of human frailty. The crowded and rowdy streets of popular Roman quadrants gave way to isolated yachts and luxurious house parties. The naturalistic portent of non-actors was replaced by gorgeous movie stars brooding at the emptiness of their hedonistic excesses. In a new, socially mobile society, concerns transformed from primal urgency to internal alienation, from collective concerns to individual searches. But the working class didn’t just fade away, and separating himself from the new, hot trends explored by his fellow countrymen, Olmi’s Il Posto is a testament to their newfound uncertainty. 

Even if timid and introspective like Domenico, characters that inhabit the Italian filmmaker’s world exude vibrancy in the way their inquisitive gazes glow in a middle close-up. There are no ennui-infused soliloquies or oneiric passages, just the “unspectacular” everyday vignettes of ordinary lives dealing with a mechanized society with no intent of slowing down for them. After all, Il Posto depicted a version of the ‘60s rarely present in the collective unconscious. This is prior to civil rights movements, glamorous countercultures and musical manias; a world of capitalist high-efficiency rulings transparent in its aseptic nature and delineated with earnest concern instead of aristocratic detachment. Perhaps it works precisely as that missing link; engulfed by the intense radiance of a lightbulb in his newly appointed desk and drowned by the mechanical drones, Domenico’s final lost gaze seeks to imagine the possibilities of futures to come. 

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Plastic Jesus | Cinema Year One

Credit: Centar Film

Fedor Tot

Plastic Jesus, directed as a master’s thesis film by Lazar Stojanović in 1971, functions as a connector switch into a parallel universe. It represents a moment at which the wider cultural, societal, and political forces which shape the world of cinema come face to face with the potential for an imaginative, open-ended future, and the crushing bore of orthodoxy which normally comes to pass.

The film is regarded as part of the tail-end of the Yugoslav Black Wave, a movement of filmmakers who appeared from the mid-60s in the country (though the term only came later – they preferred to call themselves the New Yugoslav Cinema). Its practitioners – Aleksandar Petrović, Živojin Pavlović, Želimir Žilnik – were met with accolades from both within Yugoslavia and on the wider international festival circuit. As with many of the movements that swept the film world across the 60s, they were willing to break conventions and experiment with style.

Yugoslav Communist President Tito’s 1948 split with Stalin had necessitated the country developing a ‘different’, comparatively liberal, socialist path with its own particularly Yugoslav characteristics, adapting to the particular regional and ethnic nature of the country. But despite that relative liberalism, Yugoslavia’s communist history is a constant battle between reformers and conservatives. By 1971, political and social forces were pulling the state in different directions. Ideas found themselves in combat with ideologies. The Black Wave ended when the authoritarian side of Yugoslavia won out.

Žilnik’s debut feature, the anarchic Early Works (Rani Radovi), played in the 1969 edition of the Berlinale, but increasing political pressure from the top began to push the Black Wave films further away from audiences, and into the vaults. Early Works was tried in the courts. Dušan Makavejev’s psycho-sexual essay film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) was banned and its director forced into exile, along with Žilnik and others. Petrović – the most internationally-lauded with grimy, neorealist works like Three (Tri, 1965) and I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skuplača Perja, 1967) – was unable to get new films made. Plastic Jesus saw Stojanović thrown into prison for three years, an unsurprising outcome for a furiously political work which seems to exist purely as an attempt to take a sledgehammer approach to the ideological structure of the world around it.

Predominantly, we follow Tom, played by Tomislav Gotovac, a notable Zagreb-born performance artist and filmmaker of his own accord, playing a distorted version of himself as a bohemian filmmaker living in Belgrade. He absconds with a series of girlfriends, many of whom become fed up with him rather quickly. To make ends meet, he turns to shooting pornography, at one point editing rushes whilst his stepdaughter sings Partisan songs (the Yugoslav Partisans, led by Tito, overthrew Nazi rule of the region). This lapse of judgement infuriates the other half, who throws him onto the streets, where he is picked up by police. Repeatedly, he finds his way back to yet another woman.

These sequences are intercut with archival montages, drawn from various authoritarian and totalitarian states. An early sequence – in which Tom declares that “he doesn’t believe in revolutions,” is cut with footage of Tito’s Partisans, marching to victory. Later, when a homeless Tom is drugged and his possessions and clothes robbed, Stojanović cuts to a TV address from Tito himself, whose status as the father of the socialist Yugoslav nation was untouchable. His warm, paternal embrace to the nation crashes against Tom – both in the way that wider society fails him by exposing his vulnerability, and in the way that Tom himself functions as little more than a patriarchal parasite, leeching off whatever romantic partner he can attach himself to next.

Stojanovic also intercuts these scenes (though they are often more like ideas or provocative declarations) with historical footage from the USSR, Nazi Germany, the Ustaša (Croatian fascists who, as a Nazi satellite state, subjugated Serbs, Jews and Romani in the Balkans to widespread extermination) and Chetniks (Serbian ultranationalists who would have done the same as the Ustaša had Hitler taken a shine to them and not the Ustaša), Stojanović provides us with a micro and a macro viewpoint. In the micro, we witness an otherwise unimaginative and mundane filmmaker who, probably cruelly aware of his lack of talent, sucks away the energy of those around him. In the macro, we see how the net of ideology, colouring and shaping our every waking moment, functions as background noise, giving legitimacy to Tom’s behaviour. He may be a bohemian underground filmmaker, the sort who is usually at the top of the shit-list for any self-respecting authoritarian, but that does not stop Tom from benefiting from the imbalances inherent to the ideological structure around him.

It’s tempting to regard Plastic Jesus as a historical artefact: a product of its time, lashing against the dogma of its day. Stojanović lashes out at ideologies that have long since disappeared, with the Cold War a distant memory. But the underpinning of these ideologies has simply been replaced. Where Yugoslav TV screens once embraced Tito’s paternalism, now Serbian state-owned media mollycoddles the banal, nationalistic splurge of current President Aleksandar Vučić’s latest musings (and say what you like, Tito was at least charismatic in front of a TV screen). 

Plastic Jesus may have arisen from the vaults in 1990, as Milošević took charge and proceeded to set fire to Yugoslavia, but its vicious attacks on ideology apply just as much to nationalist thought as it does to Tito’s. Had the film been made in 1991, it would have no doubt locked its sights firmly on Milošević’s oversized forehead. Indeed, Stojanović worked on Paweł Pawlikowski’s Serbian Epics (1992), which looked at how Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadžić, Biljana Plavšić and Ratko Mladić utilised poetry as cultural capital and leverage for their destructive ideological missions.

What feels so exasperating looking at Plastic Jesus today is how few modern films are prepared to take that brutal sledgehammer approach to ideology. There has been a gradual shift in cinephilia to reward films that individualise social problems. Nomadland (2020) depicts the crippling economic servitude that shackles great swathes of Americans… but only through the eyes of one individual’s grief. Indeed, many of the annual festival winners, critical darlings and Oscar front-runners tend to fixate on individual problems, functioning entirely within the host ideology and saying “isn’t this bad?” The audience is asked to generate empathy without a response to the ideological and structural underpinnings that generate inequality, injustice and oppression, giving films little more than the status of charity, an acknowledgement of social error and a shift towards temporary alleviation of the material problems but precious little pushback against its structural causes. The vaunted awards of popular culture function within ideology, struggling to break free of its all-consuming veil to the point where even our alternatives still work within that ideological space. If we can’t even dream of a different reality, how can we begin to build it on screen?

Plastic Jesus is a raw, essayistic underground film, and there is no alternate universe in which it is not an obscurity. Cinema – and culture in general – is politically useless in engendering immediate change – and yet there was a time within living memory where it was believed that it could do exactly that. It is as if the levers of power for that change have gradually been moved further and further away from artists.

The irony behind Stojanović’s imprisonment is that it had comparatively little to do with his film’s perceived attack on Titoism. Although the Great Leader is lampooned in the film, what really irked the censors was professional embarrassment. Upon completion of the film, Stojanović was called up to the Yugoslav Army, as every young, able-bodied male was forced to do. Ever the provocateur, he got himself thrown into military prison for the crime of spreading political propaganda.

On trial, he defended himself vehemently as an intellectual and artist – and suggested that the prosecutors look at Plastic Jesus to get an idea of where he’s coming from. They did. They found a scene, early on, which Stojanović had shot a few years before Plastic Jesus took shape: a marriage ceremony for two of the director’s friends. Unfortunately, the groom’s family – including his father – were major generals and higher-ups in the army, and the scene openly shows them getting shitfaced. This scene is immediately intercut with archival footage of Chetniks celebrating a military victory, and getting shitfaced.

Such professional embarrassment was unsavoury, and Stojanović was thrown into prison, not quite for attacking Titoism, but for humiliating those with political skin in the game. Attacking the ideology they could seemingly ignore – perhaps a subtle recognition that ideology is merely a game to those who practice it. But to attack their position within that ideological structure – to attack the very material benefits they stood to gain, that was beyond the pale. Can cinema still do that?

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Possession | Cinema Year One

Credit: Gaumont

Kirsty Asher

The year 1981 marked two decades since the Berlin Wall was erected around the West of the city. Both sections of the city were suspended in animation, with another decade left to go until the full dissolution of the Soviet Union. For European nations no longer involved in direct conflict, this era was recognised as one far removed from the barrage and fire of World War II. As time has passed, it’s a conflict that’s become more closely attributed to the bland, beige espionage aesthetic of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – rooms coloured in mustard and brown, clouded with tobacco smoke and the tedium of clandestine admin. No bombs fell, yet for the residents of a fractured city, the silent horror of the situation seeped into quotidian experience through constant psychological intrusion. This was the landscape chosen by the Polish director Andrzej Żuławski as the backdrop to his fourth film, Possession (1981).

Today, Possession’s cult film status is often revered by those who praise its artistic profundity while equally mocked by those who indulge in performative bafflement for Letterboxd likes. Written during and as a direct result of Żuławski’s real-life divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek, it begins when international spy Mark (Sam Neill) arrives home from a secret mission to his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) asking him for a divorce. What starts as an espionage thriller-cum-divorce drama swiftly dissolves into psychological and metaphysical surrealism. Forty years of history now separates this vividly expressionist film from the present day, and considering the modern British predicament of feeling trapped inside Normal Island at the behest of a corrupt and erratic government, it feels optimal to examine how the film’s geographical setting lends itself to emotional deterioration.

Possession is set predominantly in two locations – Bernauer Strasse, where Anna and Mark live together and the border wall is always visible from their window, and an abandoned townhouse in the impoverished Kreuzberg district. Bernauer Strasse was known for its particularly fraught division by the Wall. It was here where Soviet soldier Conrad Schumann was photographed leaping over the barrier to flee the East when the Wall first went up in 1961. Numerous residents from the row of houses in the Eastern city were shot and killed attempting to escape to the West. One day the street was a community, the next it was divided in two, and the residents were powerless to remedy this. Likewise, one day Anna and Mark were married, and then before the film has even begun Anna has told her husband she wants a divorce. Like the residents of Berlin, the couple can’t seem to verbalise why they are seperating. When lying in bed together Mark tries to reason that what’s happening is natural, and Anna tosses her head wildly, eyes panicked and disbelieving. She wants this, yet it distresses her to go through with it.

By the advent of the 1980s,  the Wall had become more of a vaguely intrusive presence, especially in the lives of West Berliners. Żuławski reflects this by punctuating the story with monotonously similar close-ups of the Wall by the couple’s apartment – the same section every time, always with two Soviet guards on lookout, always with a pair of binoculars to hand, physically present but not actively menacing. Nevertheless, even for those living in what was seen as the ‘free’ side of the city, hindsight has shed light on how the encroaching claustrophobia seeped into the lives of ordinary people. Writer and former West Berlin resident Paul Hockenos described in a 2018 piece for German outlet The Local how one mutual friend would on most evenings “open the door to her cold, dark, empty Schöneberg courtyard apartment and burst into tears,” or how another acquaintance had taken to hiding escape money under her bed, should disaster strike and the Soviet tanks rumble in to destroy the enclaved semi-city. These are the minutiae of a city gripped in silent psychological stress. 

Żuławski’s interpretation of West Berlin unbinds Anna and Mark from a sociological pressure to subdue their emotional responses, and Isabelle Adjani physically expresses Anna’s torment with cataclysmic fervour. During an argument scene with Mark she indiscriminately empties cupboards, seemingly attempting chores, and hypnotically wipes at some unseen filth on her hands. Her actions are indecipherable, yet almost normal, and once again the threat is invisible yet starkly present in her actions. In the drudgery of real life, a quiet weep in an empty courtyard is enough to keep existential panic at bay. In an underpass Anna unleashes a torrent of irrepressible sound and movement, a shamanic performance ending with her earth-shattering screams as unidentifiable fluids seep from her shaking, slumped form. It is resolutely hellish, and unapologetically forceful – but there is power in that. If an environment feels apocalyptic, allowing the self to respond emotionally without restraint can be the purest form of catharsis, and subverts the idea that such an occurrence is normal.  

While Possession is an unfathomable film which veers between supernatural horror and marital melodrama, it remains above all a Cold War film, a story of people attempting and failing to rationalise an irrational situation. Yet there is power in overtly bizarre behaviour. In an environment where the powers that be are doing everything to subdue the population by normalising authoritarianism, to subvert it with erratic physicality is an act of resistance. Perhaps there is even cause to see premonition of Berlin’s reunification in the film’s final scenes, as Anna and Mark cling together, reconciling in their death at the hands of others. Bloodied and beaten, but together as they should be.

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Yumeji | Cinema Year One

Credit: Genjiro Amato Pictures

Ren Scateni

Following a professional trajectory similar to that of Kurosawa Akira, Suzuki Seijun (1923-2017) made his comeback from Nikkatsu’s murky dismissal with Zigeunerweisen (1980), the highly stylised first instalment of what will be later referred to as Suzuki’s Taishō trilogy. However, both Kurosawa and Suzuki’s artistic hiatus in the 70s didn’t quite mean they stopped filming completely. After two decades of intense activity, which was forced to a halt following the abrupt ending of Suzuki’s contract with Nikkatsu – the Japanese film studio that will later become famous for its production of pinku eiga (softcore porno films) – Suzuki’s only release in the 70s is A Tale of Sadness and Sorrow (1977), a sordid social satire revolving around a model turned professional golf player. 

Mostly known for the numerous B-movies he worked on while at Nikkatsu – after a brief stint at Shochiku where he worked as an assistant director/scriptwriter, Suzuki migrated to Nikkatsu in 1954 to become a full-fledged director in roughly two years – Suzuki soon became associated with eclectic genre films whose formal experimentalism peaked with Branded to Kill (1967). The film is an absurdist yakuza thriller with distinct visuals that recall the style of gekiga – a type of manga that is drawn more realistically – as Yomota Inuhiko notes in What is Japanese Cinema? (Columbia University Press, 2019). Although Branded to Kill is now considered one of Japanese cinema’s cult titles, it almost cost Suzuki his career. At the time, it was common to consider Suzuki an eccentric director who made almost incomprehensible films, but it’s with his Taishō trilogy that Suzuki truly lives up to his reputation. 

The most apparent fil rouge stitching the films together is their period setting. Each of the films completing the trilogy –  Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za (both 1981), and Yumeji (1991) – is set in the Taishō period (1912-1926), a brief era marked by the continuation of Japan’s rise on the international scene and still untouched by the militaristic tide of early Shōwa (1926-1989). In these films, politics is largely left out of the frame, although Suzuki’s social and political awareness is perceptible as much as it is in most of his early films. A fixation on the aesthetics of the time is otherwise predominant and sits in perfect continuation with Suzuki’s early stylistic flourishes. This is particularly true for Yumeji, a loosely biographical take on the life of poet and painter Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934) and a spectral tale of love and artistic inspiration. 

The plot is exceptionally thin, which contributes to the anecdotal structure the film eventually adopts. Yumeji (Sawada Kenji), now an accomplished and recognised artist, is betrothed to the timid and frail Hikono (Miyazaki Masumi) but, unsurprisingly, has the hots for his models. While travelling, he encounters a charming widow, Wakiya Tomoyo (Mariya Tomoko), who is looking for her husband’s body. Soon, a cohort of secondary characters join in, including Wakiya himself – or is it his ghost? – the bandit Onimatsu (Hasegawa Kazuhiko) and the model Oyo (Hirota Leona). Through oniric sequences, explosions of bold colours, and repeated tableaux vivants fixed against minutely recreated interiors, Yumeji progresses by indulging in its own decadent aesthetics. 

Art is omnipresent, as Yumeji himself is always in the pursuit of true Beauty that he necessarily has to find in the sexualised bodies of his models/lovers. Nods to the art of Aubrey Beardsley, Egon Schiele, and Gustav Klimt pop up in the most unusual places, like on a wooden column, or the side of a boat. These drawings of naked women not only place Yumeji in conversation with his Western peers but simultaneously also remind the viewer of the subaltern and passive role of women. Objects of the artistic gaze, women exist to be sketched and possessed. When agency seems to be eventually bestowed on them, it’s immediately made clear that whatever they think and whatever they do must always be in service of a man. Reduced to nothing more than harmless dolls, though occasionally they’re allowed to show a bit more bite, Hikono, Tomoyo, and Oyo gravitate toward Yumeji’s orbit, whose frustrations and fractured artistic identities, in contrast, often resemble the tantrums of a spoiled child. 

Despite its overt egotism, Yumeji beguiles the viewer thanks to its singular aesthetic look which is also reflected in the film’s intelligent use of the Japanese traditional interior. As much as the film’s spaces respond to rigorous geometrical framing, the narrative structure progressively loses meaning – there’s virtually no interest for coherence nor for linear storytelling, and scenes are expressionistically edited together following a visual rather than thematic reasoning. And yet, Yumeji’s eccentricity is its selling point, one that marks the film – and the rest of the Taishō trilogy – as a testament to Suzuki’s creative ambition.

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Don’s Plum | Cinema Year One

Credit: Zentropa Entertainments

Orla Smith

In April 2021, it was announced that Leonardo DiCaprio’s company, Appian Way, had bought the rights to produce an English-language remake of Another Round, with DiCaprio in talks to star. It was a huge eye roll moment. Of course Hollywood are sprinting to remake a film that was already incredibly accessible in its original Danish-language, having just won the International Feature Oscar, and already starring a blockbuster name: Mads Mikkelsen. Still, the move was completely in character for DiCaprio. It’s just another step in his journey to becoming the most boring A-lister in Hollywood.

There’s no safer choice for DiCaprio than stepping into Mikkelsen’s (superior) shoes. It’s a tried and tested role previously played in a film that has already been embraced by the great guiding hand of the Academy Awards. Oscar is the force that guides DiCaprio’s life: since the titanic (ha ha) success of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, DiCaprio has only starred in one film that wasn’t directed by a past Oscar nominee, with the exception of Don’s Plum (which was filmed pre-Titanic but released afterwards). Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2000) hardly seems like an outlier though, as Boyle had already burst onto the scene with Trainspotting, and would later become an Oscar darling with Slumdog Millionaire. DiCaprio has been directed by Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese (five going on six times), and let’s not forget, Woody Allen

You’ll notice a lack of women on that list — because if women aren’t embraced by the mainstream, then they’re not embraced by DiCaprio (unless they’re a supermodel under twenty five). The same goes for people of colour. The last woman who directed him, Agnieszka Holland (Total Eclipse, 1995), is a fascinating filmmaker that he’d never work with today, because the great work she continues to do repeatedly goes unrecognised by awards bodies and mainstream film discourse (Her excellent latest film, Charlatan, was the Czech Republic’s Oscar submission but failed to be nominated). 

DiCaprio’s desperation to maintain his status as the biggest, most beloved movie star in the world means he never risks compromising his star image by doing anything that could be considered a little different, a little unpredictable. As Dale Wheatley, DiCaprio’s former friend (and one of the filmmakers behind Don’s Plum [2001]) has noted, anytime controversial news about DiCaprio surfaces, he tends to just donate a large sum to charity in order to make the bad press go away. It makes one cynically wonder whether his much-touted environmental activism is genuine, or if it’s just another building block in his carefully constructed facade.

At the turn of the millenium, one film threatened to complicate that persona. 2001 saw the very limited release of Don’s Plum after a lengthy legal dispute spearheaded by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. This issue of Cinema Year Zero is about periods of transition between one decade to the next; the transition between the ‘90s and the ‘00s took DiCaprio from mid-level stardom to the stratosphere. Don’s Plum was the debris. Shot in 1995, when DiCaprio was a name and an Oscar-nominee but not a megastar, this innocent little film — an amusingly terrible time capsule — ruined careers and friendships, all because a twenty-three-year-old movie star had too much power, and too much ego to use it wisely. And because Tobey Maguire is an asshole.

The film itself is a trifle. It’s a group of friends, the fabled “Pussy Posse”, getting together to shoot an improvised, one-location hangout movie in the style of Clerks (right down to the black and white photography). Don’s Plum is directed by R.D. Robb, a less-documented “posse” member who now works as a very-occassionally-employed actor and producer. The film stars DiCaprio and Maguire alongside real life friends Scott Bloom, Kevin Connolly, Jenny Lewis, Meadow Sisto, Marissa Ribisi, and Amber Benson. There’s little “plot” to speak of: a group of bros meet up at their favourite diner, Don’s Plum, where they’ve each brought a girl to show off to each other. They chat. The dialogue is mostly improvised. It’s pretty bad.

What’s interesting about Don’s Plum is everything except for the film itself. I’ll spare you the finest details of the years-long feud surrounding the film, because there’s a three part New York Post documentary on YouTube that lays it all out in great detail. In short: after the film was shot and while it was still in post-production, DiCaprio became the biggest star in the world, and Maguire’s career started to gather steam as well. The filmmakers couldn’t believe their luck that their first feature, made with almost no money, could now become a hit based on its star power alone. Surely audiences would gather to watch the star of Titanic in a broad comedy, even if his cringey dialogue included such bangers as “My dad commited suicide, bro!”

The stars weren’t so thrilled. Maguire, who was intent on building a wholesome, all-American boy screen persona, was determined to halt the film’s release lest his character’s foul mouth and casual misogyny taint his image. Maguire’s character is less horrible than DiCaprio’s, but he still comes off as pathetic: in his first scene he attempts to pick up multiple women at a bar, moving swiftly on to the next every time he’s rejected. Meanwhile, DiCaprio’s Derek is an outright villain, constantly using homophobic slurs, mocking and leering at the women in the group, and altogether acting offputtingly immature. DiCaprio reportedly howled with laughter when Don’s Plum was first screened for him and wholeheartedly endorsed the film (as if I wasn’t already seriously questioning his judgement). But Maguire eventually managed to manipulate DiCaprio over to his side in his quest to ban Don’s Plum, preying on DiCaprio’s anxiety that the film would complicate his meteoric success.

Ultimately, DiCaprio’s and Maguire’s anxieties about their image did irreparable damage to the careers of their peers. They filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers, who lost so much money in the process that the people who worked on Don’s Plum barely got paid. Writer-producer Dale Wheatley has spoken openly and often about how the fallout from Don’s Plum affected him: nobody in the industry will work with him because they don’t want to get on the wrong side of DiCaprio. Don’s Plum’s reputation as “the film DiCaprio doesn’t want you to see” is what makes it so fascinating. What in the film was so revealing, so damning, that concealing it warranted tarnished careers and years of dispute?

Don’s Plum makes DiCaprio look like your average, bratty, kind of sexually aggressive teenage boy — the kind we’ve all known and tried to avoid. While his character, Derek, isn’t exactly him — he’s intentionally written as the antagonist of the piece — the actors were encouraged to incorporate their own energies, and their improvised words, into the shoot. In the New York Post documentary, Dale Wheatley tells stories of a young DiCaprio picking up girls and begging his friends to let him have sex in their apartment, because he still lived with his mother. That’s the kind of twenty year old Leonardo DiCaprio was: more Superbad than Romeo. That’s the kind of twenty year old he plays in Don’s Plum. The DiCaprio we know today, who is intensely private and chooses nothing but the most respectable roles, would never reveal so much of himself on screen.

I don’t claim to know where Derek ends and DiCaprio begins — he plays up Derek’s villainy, but Derek still lives in the same place as DiCaprio, has the same friends, and is also an aspiring actor. The similarities lead to speculation, especially given Derek’s violent, leery misogyny and his homophobia. How could audiences fall for him as a romantic lead if they saw him berating Amber Benson (“I’ll fucking throw a bottle at your face you whore”)? Or if they heard him explain how “there are four orgasmic spots in your asshole, that’s why gay guys fuck like rabbits,” a line that DiCaprio demanded be cut out in the edit. As Wheatley muses, “I can only guess that [DiCaprio’s agents] thought it was either too salacious or maybe too revealing.”

Ultimately, it’s DiCaprio’s and Benson’s feud that sticks with me. It’s violent on screen, but according to the filmmakers interviewed in the New York Post documentary, it was also violent behind the scenes. The scene frames Derek as the villain of the piece: he turns on Benson’s Amy because she objects to his boorish behaviour, shouting her down until she crumples in her chair, weeping and angry. Amy leaves the diner, and the film, by storming out of the door, screaming in frustration, and throwing a shoe at Derek. The group laughs nervously along with Derek, happy to let Amy be a casualty of his frightening callousness if it means staying in his good books.

In real life, DiCaprio didn’t think Benson was a strong enough actress, so he wanted her gone — and what DiCaprio wants, DiCaprio gets. The filmmakers told him that the only way to kick Benson off the film would be to berate her in character and on camera until she left. DiCaprio’s callousness on screen was real, as were Benson’s tears, and the shoe she threw. It’s a microcosm of the story surrounding Don’s Plum: Derek utilises his social power to scare off Amy; DiCaprio used his to fire Benson; and then he did the same to the film itself. Don’s Plum crystalised for me what I find so unsettling about Leonardo DiCaprio. Imagine giving a reckless boy like Derek the power to determine the social capital of not just his group of friends, but the workers in an entire industry. The Amys of the world would be in dire trouble.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

Celebrity Big Brother 2011 | Cinema Year One

Credit: Channel 5

Catriona Mahmoud

What do The Irishman (2019), An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), and Celebrity Big Brother Season 8 (2011) all have in common? Very little beyond their length and challenge of emotional endurance. While the former pair of critically acclaimed auteur films will undoubtedly forever be referred to in their directors’ canons, CBBS8 may be lost in time, disregarded amongst the Orwellian social experiment that spanned 448 seasons and 54 countries. 

Reality television is debated for its contribution to and reflection of society, versus the damaging mental and physical impact on both contestants and audiences alike. Its labelling as ‘cinema’ in the age of the discoursese would likely be laughed at, but looking at Celebrity Big Brother Season 8 in the context of 2011 is a true time capsule that I fear will be buried and forgotten. 

It’s been a decade since 2011, a year that in itself could be argued as a cinematic event due to the prevalence of digital video coverage of the year’s events on television and the increasingly streaming-dominated broadband internet. Being from and growing up in the SWANA region, you grow accustomed to a postcolonial version of 24-hour news cycles, and approaches to understanding the region. World globes sold in UAE antique shops would have the word ‘Israel’ covered in black marker, and the news agencies like Al Jazeera would report on daily explosions in Baghdad. Tensions and cross-region solidarity were catalysed by the Arab Spring and the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The Arab Spring is a complex and nuanced narrative that would be difficult to summarise in a mere few hundred words, but what’s important to note is that while the Spring was framed as a rebirth, it led to the devastating Arab Winter, the rise of somehow even more authoritarian and alt-right governments, a series of civil wars seeing millions dead from crossfire, fighting or genocide, and the birth of the devastating caliphate of Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levante – ISIL or ISIS). 

2011 also saw a Big Brother and its sister programme Celebrity Big Brother rebirth via Channel 5. No longer appearing annually on the edgy and alternative programming of Channel 4 that it had once dominated, the franchise grasped for airtime and attempted to keep its head above water with one of the shortest celebrity seasons to air, and an all star cast including the likes of Tara Reid, Jedward, Amy Childs and Kerry Katona. The cast also included a standard set of unknown celebrities like Lucien Laviscount (Grange Hill), Pamela Bach-Hasselhoff (Baywatch star and subsequent ex-wife of David), Sally Bercow (married to the former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow) and Bobby Sabel (a still unknown model that was likely placed by producers to spark a romance with other contestants), all of whom I can assure you did not see their careers rejuvenated anew, despite taking part in groundbreaking television events such as the legendary Day 19 task set by Big Brother to ‘sort M&Ms into their separate colours’. 

What makes the season stand out, and potentially deserve a formal archiving, is its fascinating preservation of time. Arguably every season of Big Brother does the same, particularly with celebrity contestants encouraged to take part for self-promotion (or redemption, we love a scandal). Most seasons find themselves imprinting on their time: Big Brother has brought us the likes of Jade Goody and Alison Hammond, both individuals that will forever be remembered in British pop cultural history. However, Season 8 stands out as the first, and possibly only, season that fascinatingly had its time imprinted in its very fabric. The celebrities themselves are unusually unknown, with the exception of Jedward who have somehow remained relevant through their online activism regarding music industry mistreatment, Israel’s attacks on Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and condemning the Pope. However the other contestants are fairly limelight-less to this day; rather, the season itself took place in 2011, an arguably significant year in recent Arab history. While it doesn’t directly discuss 2011 topics like the Egyptian revolution, it does make the strangest allusion via the cameo appearance of Mohamed Al Fayed, one of the most famous Egyptians, once owner of Harrods and Fulham F.C., and most notably the father of Dodi Al Fayed, Princess Diana’s partner who died in the 1997 car crash alongside her. 

Al Fayed’s appearance as a pharaoh in episode four reveals the celebrities lying on the ground, wrapped in bandages undoubtedly historically accurate to the mummification practices from 2000 B.C.. Their task is to stand up. The winner is the fastest to stand up. At the end of the day a certain number of the fastest celebrities to stand up get to have a party. Despite the awards being placed in order of speed, Al Fayed is needed to judge the competition in order to determine which contestants stood up the fastest. I won’t spoil who wins for you. 

Perhaps this scene is not a direct metaphor for  the Egyptian Revolution, but Al Fayed’s cameo seems to be completely random in the context of Celebrity Big Brother. Unlike the brief mid-season appearance of Anton Yelchin, there to promote that year’s Horror Comedy Fright Night – which in itself is the oddest memorialisation of the late young actor – Al Fayed’s contribution seems to be completely random. Was he possibly chosen as the most famous Egyptian living in the UK at the time? If they had waited a decade could it have been Mohammed Salah dressed as a pharaoh? And why choose an ode to ancient Egyptian history at all? Were the producers attempting a subliminal act of solidarity with the Egyptian people, sick themselves of seeing the Arab region’s struggle to stand up for themselves in a society bound by repression and poverty, overseen by authoritarian and abusive systems? There is no rhyme or reason to the task, but you’re left feeling remarkably uncomfortable by the end. Beyond the awkward misrepresentation and trivialising of an ancient society, Al Fayed’s actions recoil you from the screen, in particular when considering his history of sexual harassment allegations and completely illegal work practises towards his female employees. From his inappropriate touching of contestants – mostly directed at Tara Reid – to handing out his business card to all the celebrities before his departure, his actions remind me of the patriarchal system Egypt still struggles to leave behind. The concept that money and power – even if it’s given to you in the form of a judge in a competition to see who can stand up the fastest – can and will be abused.

The Arab Winter was a reminder that rebirth and revolution comes at a price. What may seem like liberation can quickly be taken advantage of given the right strategy. Celebrity Big Brother is just another piece of British culture that can be difficult to understand, and even harder to explain. Why did it exist? And why did it exist for so long? No one seems to consume television the way the British do, it becomes an all consuming nationwide cinema event. Gogglebox is proof within itself that the only thing a Brit loves more than watching. is watching themselves watch TV, and it makes you wonder if Big Brother held on for a little longer before it’s timely cancellation, would it have reached the levels of a Love Island Boxpark screening? Probably not. But it’s still an important cultural artifact that will outlive us and stand definitively as a marker of the era. It gives hope that one day Jedward and Arab Spring will be uttered in the same breath, and I hope we’re lucky enough to see through both narratives until they come to a close.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

Srećan Put (Happy Trails) | Cinema Year One

Credit: MLP

Maximilien Luc Proctor

Srećan Put (Happy Trails) aka Fragments of a Memory of Another Film


Year one. I’ll do my best not to pretend that my new feature film is a reset on the cinema apparatus, by any means. But I will admit it as a reset of my own practice and approach to filmmaking. It is two thousand and twenty one, and amidst the endless horrors and suffering in the world, amidst the never-ending p*nd*m*c, I sat down for nearly a week straight to carve away at digital video files, learn more about color correction, and bring my third first feature film to fruition.


In 2014 I had ‘made a feature film’ during the final semester of my undergraduate studies. My dreams of playing Sundance were squashed when I learned they only accepted ‘DCP’s, which I had never heard of and thought my only option was to spend a couple grand to make one. (I did not squander money having a DCP made. I was overly optimistic, not stupid.) The movie was called Fragments of a Memory.

After a couple of years having no idea how to realize my dreams of becoming a filmmaker, I realized that the only thing stopping me from ‘making a movie’ was me. So I got out of my own way and made a movie. It starred myself and a couple of friends, and was loosely based on a fictionalized version of our own lives in Heidelberg – or it was about trying to be more honest with audiences, and therefore with myself. And all while still trying to navigate the multitudinous divides between fiction, meta-fiction and reality, truth and lies, questions, answers, and general comments which neither question nor answer. When I finished that film (Fragments of a Memory of a Film), I began plans for my next feature, which would be a proper narrative fiction, set in Berlin and shot on film (HAH).

In 2017 Tijana and I moved to Berlin, and to be quite frank it was a trying experience. I was beyond grateful to have Tijana in my life, as I didn’t feel that I had much of anything else in those first two months: I had left my friends behind for a second time (the first time being in 2014 when I left the U.S. ‘for good’), we were living in a temporary sublet and scrambling to find a permanent place in one of the worst cities for apartment hunting, and to top it all off I couldn’t find a job – to my great surprise, no one had been waiting outside the train station to greet me with a briefcase full of cash asking me to make a film about whatever I wanted (and to shoot it on film). In that moment I felt the seed of a second feature planted, and in March of this year I realized the time had come to bring it to life. The film is called Srećan Put (Happy Trails) aka Fragments of a Memory of Another Film.


It is my third attempt at assembling a work of feature-length (an increasingly nebulous and tenuous distinction), and the first of those three that I consider a total success. What constitutes a total success, in this case, is the work’s completion, without any glaring technical errors (a little soft focus and subpar sound aside) which push the film to be ‘unwatchable’ while also managing to bring together some visual ideas I had bubbling in my head for several years (and indeed had been practicing in isolated sessions of filming and editing, sequences which were sometimes completely abandoned and in other cases made their way right into the feature film in the same form in which they were initially completed, well over a year ago). 

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With the introduction of affordable digital filmmaking equipment came many new cinematic forms, and in some way what I’ve created here holds connections to ‘mumblecore’. Often, no budget scenarios are ‘overcome’ by focusing on the story, the script, the narrative. THE STORY! THE STORY! Everyone will remind you of the importance of the story, and I could not care less about the godforsaken story. I care about how the story (or absence of story!) is told (or shown!). I will concede that story is not completely negligible in all cases, but you have to be willing admit to yourself that it’s not the story itself which sells you on most movies, and especially not great ones.

If you’ve been brainwashed by the story police, this may not be an easy task. But I believe in you, and I’ll offer a little exercise that should help: close your eyes. Do you see the flashing red, green, yellow? Unnamable forms which describe everything and nothing? Do you see the imprints of the room that was in front of you just moments ago? Are they not fascinating to watch? They have no story.

I propose that my film is an example of ‘jumblecore’, a category referring to the use of ultra low budgets to create 21st century moving image works which forgo a focus on ‘story’ in favor of exploring the possibilities of the medium through formal experimentation  – a direct challenge to the hegemony of Hollywood money and a reflection of the current absence of a type of filmmaking which used to be a normal part of the healthy functioning cinema apparatus. The cinema apparatus is no longer healthy. 

I am not blind to the fact that in the context of this CYZ project, writing about my own film (especially plopping it into the YEAR ONE slot in an extensive lineage of brilliant titles over a century) could very much be taken the wrong way. And yet I know of no other way. If I am to tell you what a century of moving images means to me, it would be a mistake not to point you in the direction of the work I have just completed, which (in short) sums up my feelings about how to work with images. 

Consider yourself spoiler warned.


As I’ve stated plainly in the opening eight minutes of narration over a black screen, this film came about from three essential ingredients:

1) the desire to make a film

2) moving to Berlin and not having a great time in the process 

3) realizing I am better at shooting first and asking questions later

Thus the film (I keep calling it a ‘film’ but please don’t be fooled, it was shot entirely digitally) is many things to me. First of all, it is a document about this part of my life, or at least a semi-fictionalized part of this part. What you will not find in my movie are scenes re-enacting specific events in my life. 

What you will find in my movie are scenes unscripted (and two scripted) between characters created by simply placing a camera in front of my friends and asking them to play themselves.  When the camera rolls, you are a new person, even if you try to ‘be yourself’. Even when he forgot about the camera, Martin in this movie is specifically ‘movie Martin’ for every minute he is on screen. Even Valentin, who is a trained actor, has three different selves here: Valentin my friend, who agreed to take part in the project; Valentin the actor who plays an exaggerated version of himself in a scripted scene; and Valentin who acts ‘natural’ for the camera in unscripted scenes.

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You will also find fragments from scenes in my life as they were happening. For instance, one time I cleaned out the ice that accumulates in the back of Tijana and I’s fridge. As I was doing this work (and cursing the fridge for its bad habit), I thought to myself that it might be something worth filming next time. So the next time it had to be done, I set up the camera and filmed part of the process. I would have to be utterly insane to willfully set up that scene without the actual need for the fridge to be cleaned. Thus the film exists as a kind of response to life: certain events pushed me to get out the camera – such as when I was flipping through an old notebook and found a tiny dead bug squished between the pages. I have no idea how or when it got in there. Other times I simply walked around with my camera in search of images that pleased me. 

Ultimately, as with most of my work, this film is an exercise. I want to improve, and I cannot do so without practice. This was a conscious effort to practice in a more intensive way than I ever have before; to create something that fulfilled me creatively while remaining ‘accessible’ enough to a general audience. No one has to like it, only to be willing to give it a go. This is my response to a century of moving images, for the time being. I’m sure I’ll have another in a year. I know I’m not the only one to work in this manner, with no budget, with very few collaborators. And I know I’m not the first to think I’ll manage to somehow turn this into a career. 

RIP to the rest, but I’m different.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!