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The summertime can evoke a very particular brand of nostalgia. Summer’s association with fleetingly impermanent leisure grants it a wistful quality. It can be an optimum time to create cultural moments, even if they aren’t seen as such at the time, and particularly when a certain summer predates a notably difficult or traumatic event. A good example of this was summer 2018, which UK Twitter has recently decided was the perfect summer for its heatwave, England’s moderate success at the World Cup, and a particularly good season of Love Island. With the tail end of Summer 2021 becoming a comparative washout, I turned my attention to the sun-soaked Manhattan streets of Jonathan Levine’s ode to summer nostalgia, his director-writer debut film, The Wackness (2008).
The film is a coming-of-age story about hapless New York weed dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) as he tries to gain some life experience before starting college. ‘Life experience’ in this instance mostly refers to losing his virginity, ideally to Cool Girl Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) who also happens to be the stepdaughter of local psychiatrist Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley) who gives Luke therapy in exchange for dope.
Levine’s reimagining of ‘90s Manhattan is complemented by the astutely selected hip hop soundtrack. Shapiro’s loserish life is sent up in his introduction to the audience with Nas’ The World is Yours, and the overarching narrative of being friendzoned and left heartbroken is epitomised by Biz Markie’s (RIP King) anthem for the lovelorn, Just a Friend. Graffiti tag font abounds in the title credits, and cinematographer Petra Korner reportedly used vintage Baltar lenses to pick up lens flares, giving the film its hazed lighting, like a cloud of nostalgia. Here, Biggie is still on the cusp of stardom. Rudy Giuliani is only just embarking on his draconian tenure as Mayor of New York City. 9/11 has yet to happen. The film spotlights a relatively stable moment in American history just prior to an enormous cultural and political shift, as the ‘90s itself has come to symbolise.
In this sense, the film had the makings of a highly appealing nostalgia-fest. But while The Wackness won the Audience Award at Sundance 2008, where it premiered, it ended up getting lost in a summer which also saw the release of more prominent indies like Rachel Getting Married and Wendy and Lucy. But what is singular about The Wackness is its approach to cultural nostalgia, and how it manifests itself on a personal level compared to a collective one influenced by fashion trends, consumerism, and shifting demographics.
The Wackness was made during a time when ‘90s nostalgia was not yet part of the zeitgeist. Levine conceded this in an interview with the festival circuit’s favourite bouffant, First Showing’s Alex Billington, following the film’s Sundance 2008 premiere. Harrison Ford’s return as Indiana Jones that year shows a clear hunger for the 1980s revivalism which was largely apparent in 2000s pop culture, in keeping with the popular history theory of collective nostalgia moving in 20 year pendulum cycles. In this sense, Levine wasn’t attempting to capitalise on an ongoing trend, but instead aimed to use the period setting to introduce young audiences to the cultural background of his own adolescence, and to do so enthusiastically.
This is evident in Levine’s decision to use young performers known for their contribution to ‘00s pop culture. It was Peck’s feature debut following the end of the popular sitcom Drake and Josh (2004-2007), while Thirlby had starred in the 2000s touchstone coming-of-age film Juno (2007) the year before. Mary-Kate Olsen, also known for her significant contribution to ‘00s youth pop culture with her twin sister Ashley, cameos as an unsettling hippie flower child, who we have to endure watching ride Kingsley in a phonebox after a night out. Peck himself was hopeful that his appearance in the film would appeal to audience members who were young children in the ‘90s: “…the fans of [Drake & Josh] – for example, someone who was 12 years old when I was 15 – will have grown up with me. I’m 21, so they would be 18 now, and I think this movie is right in their wheelhouse.”
The problem with this creative decision is that it becomes difficult to extricate these stars from their contemporary appeal. Consider Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), which, like The Wackness, was a low-budget reminiscence of youth that made limited impact upon first release. The ensemble cast were a group of relative unknowns for which the film was their first steps on the road to stardom, and as such the film built its cult status steadily as time went by and their careers bloomed. Matthew McConnaughey has traced a smooth trajectory from his breakout performance in Dazed to his Oscar acceptance speech through the immortalisation of his catchphrase “Alright, alright, alright.”. As Parker Posey’s first major film role it was the starting point in her trajectory to becoming the ‘90s indie queen. Josh Peck was looking to remain relevant following the end of Drake and Josh, and while the themes of this film (plus a sun-drenched shot of Peck’s barenekkid ass) give it something of an edge, the role still allowed him to play up a sweetly dopey persona that had one foot in the Nickelodeon grave. Meanwhile, Olsen was in semi-retirement from acting, and while Thirlby was certainly memorable in the sarky best friend role in Juno, she doesn’t quite have the magnetic leading lady appeal needed here for her role as love’s first heartbreak.
Levine cited Superbad (2007) and Juno (2007) as recent popular youth films which he felt were exemplary, but the appeal of these films was that they were highly modern narratives which leaned on retro aesthetics to embellish the story, rather than induce nostalgia. Superbad used a funk & soul title sequence and soundtrack, and similarly Juno had kitschy thrift shop production design with a title sequence inspired by 1970s punk rock posters. With The Wackness, the aesthetics, particularly the costume design, never quite teetered into the realm of retro. Kingsley’s Dr Squires is rarely without his fedora hat, and what was 2008, if not the fedora persevering? With Olsen’s career turning to fashion design in 2004 and the twins’ cultivation of the ‘boho chic’ look in the mid-00s, playing a hippie with flowers in her hair did little to invoke ‘90s youth culture. Similarly, the film’s attempts to invoke nostalgia for dated technology failed to strike home. SNES consoles and mixtapes hardly felt outdated in a time when GameBoys were still in use. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) which came out the same year, centres around two people who love making mix CDs. It’s hard for nostalgia to resonate if cultural references haven’t been given time to fall out of immediate relevance.
Where history might well be kind to Levine’s film is the notion that it was an honest labour of love by a director who wanted to celebrate the past, regardless of whether it turned into a financial or cultural capital boon. As Thirlby’s character Steph eponymously puts it to Peck’s Shapiro during one of their meandering trysts, you’ve got to look for ‘the dopeness’ rather than ‘the wackness’ in life. The real wackness in this day and age is how fast fashion and media guzzles down the ‘90s aesthetic for profit and clout. Maybe Gen Z, or even Gen Alpha, will seek out The Wackness in the quest for an honest puff of the nostalgia cheeba.
An Excerpt from The New American Cinema by Andrew Sarris
The following text is the only known excerpt from Andrew Sarris’ final, unfinished book, The New American Cinema. This short chapter was discovered over the summer of 2021 underneath the remains of MoMA (soon to be Manhattan’s newest Apple Store) along with a set of notes that, though incomplete, give an insight into Sarris’ updated canon of auteurs working in American cinema that he was working on at the time of his death.
The general structure of the book is difficult to discern; however, what we do know from these excavated pages is that the excerpt re-published here, a chapter on Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee, was to be part of a section entitled ‘Darkness on the Edge of Hollywood’. Lee was to sit alongside the likes of James Cameron; Oliver Stone; Kathryn Bigelow; and several others. Several post-it notes found inside the pages also suggest that his original ‘Pantheon’, featuring famous analyses of Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang and Howard Hawks, has its new counterpart in ‘Masters’. Among those selected for this upper echelon were David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Spike Lee. Reaction to this suggested top tier has brought criticism of Sarris’ apparent reliance on male directors, once again sparking discussion over the male-centricity of Sarris’ auteur theory.
Few directors can lay claim to admiration as widespread as Ang Lee. He would win the Golden Bear in Berlin twice in the 1990s for The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Sense and Sensibility (1995), seem to have compromised his claim to the cult and arthouse by 2003 with Hulk, and then perform a similar festival feat again winning two Golden Lions at Venice in three years for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Lust, Caution (2007). He can step through Potsdamer Platz and straight to the Dolby Theatre to pick up his Oscar, before donning a sports cap and standing outside a local AMC Theatre to whip up a sizable crowd for his new film. He is versatile, but not uncommitted: no film of his is completed in half-measures. He so well embodies how each film should look and feel that his skill is in danger of pointing to an absence of self. Yet, he is also remarkably consistent in his interests. Lee has respect for each film’s size and scope, whether epic or intimate; yet the drama remains between no more than a few characters.
His preferred aspect ratio of 1:85:1 gives him the best of both worlds. It sacrifices neither the height of 4:3 nor the breadth of widescreen. It does, in fact, resemble a painter’s canvas. It can facilitate striking landscape shots and moving close-ups, between which Lee will often fade softly instead of cutting harshly. His fades meld psychodrama into every project – invited in rather than snuck under the wire. Like Douglas Sirk, Lee’s object of attention is often misunderstood as pure repression rather than negotiation. His celluloid films are an interplay between lust and caution, sense and sensibility.
Opening up the scope to his full career, another understandable misreading must be rectified. The early films from his native Taiwan give people the impression that the family unit is central to his work; what his digital works reveal is an affinity with the travails of youth. Families are lost in Life of Pi (2012), relegated in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), and built in Gemini Man (2019). But through all three, a young man must negotiate desire with duty, sense with sensibility. Digital technology and the promise of youth go hand-in-hand for Lee just as they do for Jean-Luc Godard. Lee’s high frame rates conjure unreality, though for different ends in each of his digital films. Unreality creates a natural fantasy in Life of Pi, a national estrangement in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and a nurtured schizophrenia in Gemini Man.
Lee’s seemingly universal appeal has morphed into a deep technological sophistication that appears to have warded many away from his art. In his most beloved moments, Lee has proven that a middlebrow, adult cinema can still exist amidst the infantile juvenilia that cakes the multiplex today. Contrary to apologists for digital technophobia and critics of Lee alike, he is still making those brilliant works today. It is not he that has changed; it is the world around him. How apt for a director who consistently places figures in landscapes: the cowboy atop the mountain, the warrior amidst the trees, the boy upon the sea.
Though the film does not get a mention in the passage, another of the post-it notes cited Ride with the Devil (1999) as ‘LEE’S GREATEST MOVIE’, all emphatically underlined. It is unknown why this sentiment does not appear in the excerpt.
The encroaching mid-point of 2021 saw the Empowerment Industrial Complex once again manufacturing the seasonal event of Hot Girl Summer. It was sold like snake oil as a cure-all for the psychological ailments wrought by the pandemic. Well, for me it was more like Depressed Cunt Summer. One acute source of stress was a feeling of burnout that made writing feel like more of a nail-pulling exercise than usual. Social media can be a powerful addiction that feeds the despair of the depressive, while presenting itself as a salve due to its mind-numbing properties. However, even Twitter – the depressed writer’s platform of choice – was becoming unbearable, and so that is where the algorithmic gyrations of TikTok come into play.
I had created a TikTok account back in 2019 to follow CYZ co-founder Ben Flanagan. Yet despite being blown away by the cinematic qualities of muhlizzaaaa’s opus You’re So Oily, I found the initial deluge of basic content to be impenetrable. I hadn’t let the algorithm wash over me.
Most of your time on TikTok is guided towards the For You Page (FYP), a never-ending tapeworm of video content you scroll through. From your viewing habits, the algorithm is able to deduce what kind of content you like to see and recommends more of the content you engage with. This is how online communities are formed.
Like Twitter, TikTok has its own loosely formed groups based on hobbies dressed up as personality traits. Watching Queline Meadows’ excellent video essay The Rise of Film TikTok recommended a bunch of cool accounts I could follow and not be so overwhelmed by viral dance trends and unfunny skits. The discourse on Film TikTok (FilmTok) is less developed than on Twitter. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Part of the reason for this is that Film Twitter skews older. It is a noxious mix of pontificating amateurs raised on Ain’t it Cool News and equally pontificatious professionals who work for media conglomerates in Brooklyn, Austin, or London. It is somewhat refreshing then that Film TikTok is composed of young enthusiasts rather than jaded wannabes, even if The Discourse is less riveting.
At the same time it can be rather tedious seeing yet another Midsommar (2019) edit or relitigation over how annoying film bros can be. The pool of films being discussed, or rather gushed over, is remarkably shallow and sometimes it is easy to balk at some of the “UnDeRaTeD FiLMs” that get recommended. Slice of Amélie anyone? This is to be expected from young users with a smaller frame of reference than someone in their late twenties with enough disposable income for both Sight & Sound and MUBI subscriptions. Still, it felt like there was great potential to make videos about more niche fare given the lack of variety and the undeniable passion on display. If Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) could make recurrent appearances on Film TikTok, perhaps Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977) would be of interest.
I’ve always found video editing to be a slightly magical process. Although Facebook’s disastrous “pivot to video” was based on wild exaggeration that decimated the digital media job market, there was still something alluring about video content – specifically the act of creation. Adobe Premiere felt like sorcery compared to Google Docs and Zotero.
So in July, thoroughly burnt out and desperate for a creative outlet to distract me from my own self-hatred, I started making a video in the style of a TikTok. I took a snippet of audio from my Marlene Dietrich essay for Cinema Year Zero as the foundation and placed some smokey clips over it. The forced verticality of TikTok videos seemed to be an aesthetic hindrance when showing film clips but I personally found it fascinating. Close-ups of Dietrich can pop even more as you blow her up to take up the entirety of a phone screen. Alternatively you could be creative by splitting the screen top to bottom and concurrently show two clips. This would be useful to compare two different scenes. TikTok’s user interface is less cluttered in the top left hand corner of the screen, so the most important elements of each shot should gravitate towards that sweet spot. In short it was challenging, and it was fun.
The Dietrich video was never meant to be uploaded upon completion. It was just a way of occupying my mind with something that wasn’t work or depression. However, I felt a certain amount of pride in what I had created when it was finally finished. Scared, I posted and deleted the video a couple of times before resolving to just upload the damn thing and sleep on it, thinking the video would maybe get a dozen views. That was in the beginning of July. To date, the Dietrich video is my most successful post on TikTok with forty thousand views and over six thousand likes in September. That may be small potatoes compared to other accounts but for me it meant a lot to see people responding with enthusiasm to what I had made. Moreover, scanning some of the accounts engaging with video revealed greater diversity. It wasn’t just film people watching and liking the video. Some people left lovely comments.
I have continued to post on TikTok over the summer. Some posts are short, others longer. All of them have been valuable experiences to me, tapping into my passions and driving me to do better. I find myself with more video ideas than I know what to do with now, and have written several scripts in my Notes app. I don’t know whether I will still be posting on TikTok a year from now, and I won’t say it cured my depression, but it did provide a bright spot in what was otherwise a miserable summer.
Where are you marching?
During a recent visit to the National Gallery, I noticed the faintly absurd image of Christ. In Annibale Carracci’s 1602 painting, Domine, quo vadis?, the Second Coming literally points along the Appian Way, responding to Saint Peter’s startled inquiry, “Lord, where are you marching?”, a basic translation of the painting’s title. According to New Testament apocrypha, Christ’s answer is, in effect, “Rome, to be crucified again.” Christ tells his errant apostle to return with him. Peter must follow his leader, and he earns a harsh reward for his obedience. Nailed to the cross, he dies upside-down, another victim of the thuggish Emperor Nero. The story of Peter’s demise alludes to broader patterns of belated sacrifice, which often reveal themselves in depictions of belief and oppression.
Carracci’s oil is probably the most famous portrayal of quo vadis? in European art, and it at least captures, through its staged insistence, a moment of revelation, the insight that one should return to the site of pain, suffer persecution, and in doing so, reach a state of grace and resolution. Christ is rendered as a hostile monument, and the composition contrasts classical and baroque styles, which elicit a heightened dramatic quality from the scene. Draped in swirling roseate hues, Christ’s toned physique holds a flamboyant and authoritative pose, and Peter, wearing a garment of gold and electric blue, appears shrivelled and meek, knowing he must attend to his holy responsibilities. Paired up, these exaggerated figures have a bathetic effect on the viewer. Peter’s preposterous vision belies his imminent martyrdom, which appears, considering Christ’s belligerent stance, to be less of a prophecy and more of a threat.
Curiously, this image and the wider account of quo vadis? came to mind after watching several recent films about faith and conflict: two set in Bosnia, the other in Serbia. It seems that many filmmakers who grew up during the wars of Yugoslavia have since become adults, and as the decades have come on, so too has the urge to revisit the fighting that forged the contours of their childhoods. These recollections insist on different representational techniques, some of which traverse straight dramatization, enigmatic docufiction, and elliptical amalgams of archive and testimony. The three films discussed here draw on these styles in turn, constituting a sort of cinematic reckoning, the pressure placed on history from its latest products, who are, independently, contributing a short march into the past.
In a somewhat apt borrowing, writer-director Jasmila Žbanić employs the Latin phrase, and its subsequent connotations, for her film, Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020), a studied interpretation of the Srebrenica genocide, which took place in July 1995. The protagonist, Aida (Jasna Đuričić), works as a UN translator on the border of the town, at the point when it falls to Serb forces led by Ratko Mladić (played by Boris Isaković). Under the General’s command, his army and paramilitaries are shown murdering Bosniak Muslim men and boys, including Aida’s husband and son. The drama is tense, cyclical, and unforgiving, but the trauma of endless recurrence it evokes is delivered most acutely in the coda, during which Aida becomes a schoolteacher in Srebrenica. In the aftermath of war, she learns to live among those who killed her friends and family. The final scene has her class performing a show for a group of parents, pointedly containing one of the most egregious murderers, as Aida watches on, mournful and resilient. The closing portrait of her face, the accumulation of horrors, does not exude piety or grace. It rather renounces the theatre of martyrdom and illustrates a frank reality: that 25 years on, the past still refuses to be the past, the persecuted do not always flee, and agony remains embedded in the walls.
The not-quite-yet-history of conflict is threaded through two films that premiered this summer in Locarno, both of which draw on battles in the Balkan region. Shot over five years in a docufictional style that fuses reality and imagination, Brotherhood (2021) is an assured second feature from the Italian director, Francesco Montagner. His main subjects are three sibling sheep farmers, Jabir, Usama, and Useir (actual brothers), who live and work together in rural Bosnia. The location might indicate a sort of travel-dilettantism on the part of the filmmaker, but he uses a thoughtful, embedded approach and an organic perspective. The plot is set in motion by the initial presence and eventual absence of the boys’ father, Ibrahim, once a Mujahideen who fought the Serbs in the 1990s, soon to be imprisoned for his arcane association with Islamic terror plots.
“Ibra,” as he is known, is a strict and devout paternal figure, whose influence varies among his children. The deeply religious middle child, Usama, is ridiculed for his piousness by the youngest, Useir, whose countenance transforms most starkly as he enters his teenage years. The eldest, Jabir, tries to manage the resentments and indiscretions of both while pursuing an adult life of his own. The question of quo vadis?—and more specifically, of paternal devotion—is reformulated by the interpersonal dynamics of the trio. Where are they trying to go? Usama emphasises the moral value of maintaining their father’s farm; Useir seems distracted from the rigours of the homestead; and Jabir makes a tentative step into the metropolitan world of education and professional work. Compared to Srebrenica, much less is at stake, but the boys’ forlorn routine and limited prospects reveal an extended fallout, the residue of war and ancestry that still shrouds its descendants.
DP Prokop Souček’s attraction to twilight image-making bathes them in alternate conditions and landscapes: the bucolic glow regularly gives way to bleak precipitation. These visual disparities evoke both the wistful suggestion of youthful discovery and the melancholy of farmhand labour. City life—the hubbub of schools, clubs, and friendships—is juxtaposed against the austere, solitary routine of herding, shearing, and butchering the flock. Themes of tradition, responsibility, honour, and fraternity underpin much of the drama, but these are not offered insistently; instead, they churn and fester through the teenagers’ interactions. The way the brothers look—similar but not identical, with gradual stages of auburn illuminating their hair—supplies an eerie discombobulation. Useir’s shaved head reappears as he ages, hinting at, but not advertising, the compression of time that echoes the suppression of their livelihoods. His indifference to prayer sets up an abrupt close, which posits the simplicity of escape above complicated filial obligations. Useir seeks new pastures, rather than repeat the sins of his father, abandoning the fidelity to scripture that has been forced upon his brothers.
Rampart (2021), meanwhile, offers a deeply personal, although indirect, perspective on the NATO bombing campaign in Belgrade. Through a hybrid form of documentary, Marko Grba Singh returns to his childhood apartment on the outskirts of the capital and finds an archive of home recordings, VHS tapes from 1998 to 1999, which he intersperses with contemporary footage. The trivial day-to-day of his youth—playfighting dogs in the lounge, basketball in the street, Age of Empires on bulky monitors—are pockmarked with sonic interruptions, the sound of metal falling in the distance. The intricate mesh of these events evokes not a duty of faith, as in Brotherhood, but a living document of multiple generations. The director’s grandfather narrates most of the historical video, which provides a poignancy for the film’s frequent cuts to the present. The grandfather has since died, and Grba Singh stands as a solemn figure in an empty building, himself now carrying the sight and sound equipment.
These scenes combined— the old intercut with the new—reveal the essence of formal counterpoint: the refraction of light that bends both ways. The interpolations of modern Belgrade transform Grba Singh’s commitment to memorialize what has been lost. By returning to these sites of nostalgia, he does not aim to restore a collective chronicle but rescue a private past. The bombs we hear exploding, some miles away, are not the central subjects; they form textures within an excavated memory. To show the incidental nature of history, as Grba Singh does, disturbs the signs of an obvious destination. For him, space and time cannot be separated, the self and the public are fused together, and any act of return is freighted with contradictions, a territory filled with both the light trivia of reminiscence and the brute fact of historical record. Quo vadis? If only we knew yet.
The past, the future, and found footage cinema
It began with an actress, a colour, and an obsession. In his continued rewatching and recutting of the 1931 film East of Borneo, the artist Joseph Cornell created Rose Hobart (1936), named for the film’s lead actress, and one of the earliest examples of found footage cinema. In this context, found footage means something different than horror films like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007). In Cornell’s film, the found footage is pre-existing material – he apparently found a 16mm print of East of Borneo by chance, giving the term a playful and literal dimension that seems fitting for this specific strand of experimental cinema.
Rose Hobart, which rearranges footage of Hobart in East of Borneo while interspersing it with images from an eclipse, also places the film in a different context. By removing the dialogue, and changing the film from black and white to a blue tint, Cornell’s version of East of Borneo feels more like early silent cinema. By making these changes he creates a literal blueprint for what would eventually become found footage cinema – taking material from any number of sources, and turning it into something else. This can be as simple as what Cornell does, or bringing together more disparate threads, as in Bruce Conner’s A MOVIE (1958). Conner uses newsreels, film clips, and softcore porn as a way to explore visual association, the limits of narrative, and a dissonant relationship between sound and vision; the film’s score becomes more triumphant as the images become more morbid. These films challenge the idea that any piece of art is fixed or finished, refusing to allow simple objectivity to dictate what is or isn’t available to be seen. Found films that reframe the narratives of characters as being inherently queer, for example, challenge the ideas that how a character was originally written is the only way to see them; Cecilia Barriga’s The Meeting of Two Queens (1991) takes footage from assorted Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo films and uses them as a way to tell the story of two queens who fall in love.
This decades-old practice of finding queerness where it might not have originally, explicitly existed is one of the ways in which found footage has strong echoes with how pop culture is consumed and deconstructed in the 21st century, as we watch, critique, discuss, and (re)imagine films in a way that’s becoming increasingly Online. Something like Rose Hobart, or even Meeting of Two Queens can be read as a kind of fan fiction, as if Dietrich and Garbo were in a slash fiction archive, refusing the heterosexual history forced on them by straight films and audiences. Queens highlights some of the classic ways of creating romantic tension – fleeting gesture, a glance that lingers for a moment too long – which are also common tropes in the writing of fanfic. While our exploration of archives has changed – from pilfering silent films and newsreel footage in the mid-20th century, to fans scouring the internet for information, rumour, theories – the ways we respond to and use them remain the same. There’s truth to a YouTube comment on an upload of Rose Hobart: “one could argue [it’s] the first ‘fanvid.’”, and that’s one of the things that highlights the unexpected staying power of this strange sub-genre, as it straddles a fine line between fascination, lust, and the desire for the world and its culture to be made in our own image. “Fanvids,” from Rose Hobart on for almost a century, are rooted in the idea that one specific viewer’s interpretation of what they’ve seen might have more merit than whatever the original creators intended.
The practice has evolved with time and technology; arguably it’s easier than ever to make something found and appropriative with easy access to video editing software, and countless hours of footage at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. With its wide availability, and the ubiquity of fancams – which get made for everything from K-pop bands and reality TV, to Succession and politicians – it can be easy to ignore the potential and power of found footage cinema. The ubiquity of these small, highly personal edits, can make them seem invisible, just another thing you’ll scroll past on Twitter or Instagram. But in reality they capture the possibility made available by found cinema, and the possibility afforded by the ease of access to the technology needed to make it.
The pieces that might be called the “classics” of the genre understand the relationship between the footage that’s been found, the context with which it was made, and the door
The history and future of found footage feels like an exercise in the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. From Joseph Cornell, to fancams on Twitter, to the endless desire to pillage our own, ever-changing archives and histories in order to cast them in a new light, these films feel like a perfect microcosm for how we understand media in the internet age; the age-old obsession with gesture: it dominates Technology/Transformation, Meeting of Two Queens, and other, contemporary found footage films, such as Michael Robinson’s The Dark, Krystle (2013). Robinson makes something strange, and purgatorial, and queer out of the soap opera Dynasty (1981-1989) by zeroing in on the minute, repeated details of characters Alexis and Krystle, showing endless echoes of their closeups, sideways glances, and the way they sip champagne. This constant focus on the minutiae of these two women, keeping them trapped together in a way that’s eternal and obsessive turns their dynamic into something queer. This reframing of iconic characters in their own, strangely intimate world has echoes of The Meeting of Two Queens. Like Barriga’s film, The Dark, Krystle explores the limits, repetitions, and transcendence of simple gestures done countless times. These ideas echo through the fanvids and fanfics that follow in these cinematic footsteps, showing that this act of finding and remaking something is a gesture in itself, one as old as film itself: the impulse to cut, print, and (re)create.
Robert Altman’s five decade, 45+ film career is a beast to wade through. With a revolving company of players and recurring aural and visual jokes, Altman’s ostensibly backseat approach seems to result in films that drip by, sustained by glimpses of character and enough good vibes. But despite his somewhat distant eye, the stamp of the Kansas-born, California-settled Altman is all over each of his films. Because there are enough behind-the-scenes stories to fill a book without touching on the of form single film, and because the Altman technique is so supposedly apparent to any viewer (as much as his fellow ‘New Hollywood’ friends like De Palma and Spielberg), the true precision, deftness of touch, and emotional undercurrent of his films is often overlooked.
Which may be why, distribution rights issues aside, the deeper cuts of his filmography are rarely discussed or revisited. With so many classics of the Empire/Sight & Sound/They Shoot Pictures list variety, it might be exhausting to make it beyond the first few layers of Altman’s work. God knows, in my recent ‘Starter Pack’ write up for We Love Cinema London, I felt like a scam artist. In choosing just 6 films with which to introduce the reader to Altman, the choices ended up saying more about my failings than offering a real pathway into this storied career.
The occasion of the BFI’s Altman season was a welcome excuse to patch up those blind spots. It’s not an utterly complete season: His earliest films The Delinquents (1957) and Countdown (1968) would have added key context, even if That Cold Day in the Park (1969) makes a fitting entry point as the first distinctively Altmanian work. His TV work is noticeably absent. Did the programmers not trust that an all day screening of satirical mockumentary Tanner ‘88 would fill NFT3? Selfishly, I would have liked to see a print of Gosford Park, which premiered at the London Film Festival 20 years ago and should be getting a more major celebration this year.
Instead, the season’s banner title was a 4k restoration of Nashville (1975). And why not? For such a canonised work, it’s an often shrugged-away film. Anecdotally, when the film was on Netflix, I heard stories from several people who turned it off after half an hour or outright skipped the musical numbers. The re-release must have made some new converts. The sound mix is tightened up, and the size of a cinema screen is so helpful to pick out the minor staging choices that mirror each other throughout the film (his choice of shot-reverse shot between performer and viewer always has its double, with increasingly histrionic symbolism).
The year before, his masterpiece Thieves Like Us slid in and out of public view amongst the gaggle of ‘New Hollywood’ films that year, including Godfather II, Chinatown, and his own California Split. Altman’s adaptation of Edward Anderson’s Outlaw Couple novel (already made as They Live By Night (1948) by a little director named Nicolas Ray) is perhaps too small-scale in its gangland riff, too gentle in its nostalgic evocation of American heartlands, too vague in its central love story. David Carradine and Shelley Duvall, two of the weirdest looking but incredibly hot movie stars that ever there were, both transport their hippy affectation to The Great Depression. He’s a reluctant bank robber, she’s the daughter of the gas station clerk who gives Carradine and his buddies a place to stay. One scene, where the gang practice robbing banks at home, with a bunch of kids play-acting as bystanders (yep, the shoe polish is out), is an all–timer. Altman lays out his scenes with pictorial simplicity – minimal sets and relatively simple camera movement that feels like the director is actively attempting a more formal approach to pulpy material. And when, during love scenes, Carradine hides his face behind Duvall’s, and they become one like Persona, I began to appreciate, maybe for the first time, Altman’s Bergmania.
Just like Bergman, Altman uses symbols of Christianity as a shorthand to connect his characters to their homeland, through rituals and community. Being far less austere, and a far looser filmmaker, Altman’s religious symbols can shift depending on the film’s location. 3 Women (1977), which interpolates the persona-swap plot of Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) into a California desert vehicle for Duvall and Sissy Spacek, is often connected by critics to Persona (1966), not only because of the dreamlike tone, but also the grandiosity of its minimalism and cruelty of its characters.
Altman even casts Bibi Andersson in Quintet (1979), undoubtedly the filmmaker’s biggest creative failure. It’s a dystopian science-fiction set in an icy future. Paul Newman shows up at a city housing refugees from the freezing environment outside, only to discover that a deadly game is afoot! Trouble is, neither the characters nor the viewer has the ability or inclination to work out what the rules are. It’s filled with over-ripe elliptical dialogue delivered by the likes of Fernando Ray, speaking a future dialect where, for example, a drink becomes ‘Booza!’ The jagged sets are like leftovers from Doctor Who, and the film’s plodding pace isn’t helped by obvious political messaging. It’s also the only Altman film to be mentioned in Deleuze’s Cinema books. Make of that what you will.
Fortunately, Altman followed his worst film up with a banger. A Perfect Couple sitting between his most reviled (Quintet) and most divisive (A Wedding), the slight musical comedy of A Perfect Couple (1979) is broadly overlooked. On the film diary/social media platform Letterboxd – which is a sort of notebook for oversharers where only the most benign and reductive thoughts are celebrated – just one of my ‘mutuals’ has watched this film, and only another has it on their ‘watchlist’. Only 598 users have logged it. By contrast, 44k users logged The Long Goodbye (1973), and 5.2k users have logged Dr T. & The Women (2000). A Perfect Couple is, however, worthy of seeking out.
A quasi-remake of Marty (1955), it stars the unexpectedly dreamy pairing of Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, two good-looking actors who also appear so normal and natural on screen, as though they aren’t on screen, that the rom-com pastiche they work through is heightened. Dooley is an antiques dealer, part of a strict Greek Orthodox family who stifle him in family scenes as blackly comic and grim as anything in Eraserhead (1977). Via the ‘Great Expectations’ video dating service, he has fallen for Heflin, a mild-mannered singer, whose Big Brother & The Holding Company-like band is overseen by a rockstar just as patriarchal as the father Dooley deals with. In extended rehearsal scenes, Altman luxuriates in jam band magic, letting the interpersonal tensions boil. But instead of moving towards melodrama, A Perfect Couple focuses on the sweet pair that tie these two worlds together.
As Altman licked his wounds from the flop of Popeye (1980) by working more on the stage, his connection to the Swedish master became even stronger. The Bergmania continues in Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), a single-location drama that uses sustained close ups to draw melodrama from its actors’ faces. It is Altman’s Cries and Whispers (1972). In it, five ex-waitresses of a Kansas 5 & Dime store return for a 15-year reunion, and are shocked to discover that their colleague Joe is now a trans woman played by Karen Black. It’s obviously a little troubling to approach a 1982 movie with a cis-woman playing trans, and it’s only through the sheer strength of Black’s sardonic, sympathetic, buoyant performance that the film succeeds. Altman clearly has some issues to work through, as you can also spot trans panic subplots in HealtH (1980), California Split 1974), O.C. and Stiggs (1987) and others – never outwardly hostile, but always ambivalent to the point of unpleasantness. But Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which utilises the should-be-corny device of having its characters look through a mirror on the back wall into the past, where flashbacks take place through a glassy haze.
But while that stage adaptation was an expected hit, Altman’s National Lampoon adaptation O.C. and Stiggs was the welcome surprise of the season. Perhaps the all time great stoner movie, this anarchic, destructive universe presents an antidote to the Reaganite cinema of John Hughes. Not that this pair are any more laudable than Ferris Bueller, but the film doesn’t mythologise them. Instead, this cartoon caper barely strings itself together, and constantly burns the whole thing down. Even the end of the film inserts an obligatory conflict and tension that’s resolved in less than two minutes. Daniel H. Jenkins as O.C. and Neill Barry as Stiggs are both fairly forgettable, their bland performances characterising a pair of goofballs who are well on their way to becoming the same nouveau-riche assholes they spend the movie pranking. So Altman orchestrates them into a bizarre string of cacophonous sequences including a wedding disrupted by an Uzi, shenanigans at the mall, a jaunt to Mexico, and a final mansion siege that would make Scarface blush. Somehow, all of the inhabitants of their high-school-adjacent community are present at each of these set pieces, which makes the film a series of wild running gags. With an expansive ensemble of cartoon cutout characters including alcoholic Jane Curtin, vagrant Melvin Van Peebles, and helicopter-piloting pot dealer Dennis Hopper, Altman uses the National Lampoon characters to push his Popeye aesthetic into something even stranger. His most mean-spirited film, and maybe his most truthful.
There is barely room here to get into the other films I saw in June and July: The Company (2003), Kansas City 1996), Brewster McCloud (1970), even the Nashville retread HealtH played as utterly successful. Maybe the last year has ruined my taste, but I’m losing interest in refined work. That’s what made Popeye into the most significant screening of the season. I won’t go into the details – though I’m sure you’d gladly pay me Tuesday for a plot synopsis today – as the film has been successfully reclaimed so as to no longer be an overlooked Altman work. Needless to say, Shelley Duvall gives one of the great comic performances as Olive Oyl, Robin Williams’ Popeye is Brando-esque, and the film’s entire metier is pristine in 2021. The Sunday morning screening in July, of Altman’s personal print of the film, was easily the best crowd I have experienced since cinemas reopened. As Popeye beats up that octopus, the theme tune played and the audience burst back out into the light of day; with football fans crawling over Southbank on the day of England Men’s first World Cup match, our crowd already had something to celebrate.
In this edition of Cinema Year Zero, you’re likely to find thoughtful essays from writers who have spent their summer months discovering the works of unsung filmmakers, or overlooked film movements. Unfortunately, in May I joked to my partner that our next binge box set should be the BBC’s mid-2000’s comprehensive school-set soap opera Waterloo Road, only to soon find ourselves several seasons (and summer months) deep. The show was a one time ratings giant that has largely been forgotten for several reasons, not least the exodus of viewers when producers decided to move the setting from Rochdale in Greater Manchester to a boarding school in rural Scotland for its final seasons, following a plot line where the school gets shut by authorities and a billionaire donor agrees to revive it in another deprived area. As is the case with any TV drama funded by the British taxpayer, there’s very little of cinematic note to the show, unless you count guest appearances from future big screen stars such as Jodie Comer or Jack O’Connell, or a very early writing credit for Harry Wootliff, director of the subpar romantic drama Only You (2018).
And yet, what it represents feels oddly prescient, a stark contrast to the expected worldview of a social realist work set in the North of England. The more I became acquainted with its approach to mining various subjects of tabloid hysteria for plot lines, the more apparent it became that any grit was artificial. This was a vision of this part of the world designed solely for the most middle class Daily Mail readers in the south, who have the fewest ties to this setting and are therefore most likely to buy into it. Rochdale has suffered many horrendous headlines in recent years, from a child sex abuse scandal to being listed as one of the UK’s top 20 most deprived areas, with some neighbourhoods being amongst the most impoverished in Greater Manchester. Waterloo Road never looked past this negative press to offer a more grounded view of life in the town, its depiction of its setting an entirely reactionary one. In fact, the show’s greatest achievement may be introducing a pair of characters that, when watched now, feel like very clear precursors to the archetypal “former Labour voters” of the north that the broadsheet commentariat have recently gotten worked up over – something particularly unusual considering they reside in Rochdale, the birthplace of the co-operative movement, which remains a socialist stronghold even if the “Red Wall” around it crumbles.
Both of these characters made their debut appearance in the first episode, airing in 2006, and were the only two of the original cast to survive the transition north of the border in 2012. The first of these is Grantly Budgen (Phillip Martin Brown), a curmudgeonly senior English teacher who exists within the show’s earliest seasons solely to voice the most abhorrent views related to whichever storyline is at hand. This could be telling a gay kid he deserves to be bullied for being open about his sexuality, or equally ghastly views related to children of immigrants or Traveller communities who he believes don’t have a right to be taught there. He is also, adversely, the staff’s union representative and a firm believer in collective action, a frequent critic of the “so called Labour government” of the Blair/Brown era due to cuts to education, and is later revealed to have met his wife at a socialist demonstration many decades prior.
Somehow, the character became a fan favourite, given increasingly heartfelt or humorous storylines as seasons progressed, the more prejudiced aspects of his character gradually toned down into a banal “he hates everybody equally” worldview. If works by Britain’s leading social realist filmmakers have only continued to reaffirm their base political ideologies, be they the importance of collective action (Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018), also starring Brown) or the need for union support within a rapidly growing gig economy (Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, 2019), Waterloo Road routinely uses the character of Grantly to undermine both ideas. Those who demand collective action are almost always doing it for selfish reasons, with any strike action usually a result of Grantly convincing other staff members certain pupils aren’t worth the effort. That he’s seldom depicted in a classroom teaching gets to the heart of the show’s ideology here – the unspoken but heavily implied suggestion that striking teachers are usually just looking for a new excuse to get out of doing their jobs.
The other teacher of note is Tom Clarkson (Jason Done), the closest thing to an audience surrogate character on account of being the most generic man ever personified on prime time television. This is a guy whose ideal Saturday is having a pint and watching the Man City game. Tom is a character always one step away from tragedy, with every love interest thrown his way either meeting a painful end (which, in season two, includes both women he’s in a love triangle with), or about to face a harrowing experience of their own. After losing a child in an early episode, the show inexplicably reconfigures its own worldview around his, pivoting to becoming the rare British work with an overtly pro-life ideology. Teen pregnancies are a recurring narrative trope in any high school drama, and yet abortion and adoption are unusually treated as taboo topics within Waterloo Road, Tom usually barging his way in to say a baby should stay with its birth mother – which is always met with eventual acceptance. In one genuinely baffling season three episode (episode 9, 2008), a pupil who kept her pregnancy a secret and miscarried was forced to both name the baby and throw a funeral for it, even though she was going to give it up for adoption.
This consistent pro-life message proves especially strange considering that, in the season prior, the show introduced a creationist villain (Jerry Preston, played by Paul Birchard) for a multi-episode arc, his religious beliefs written to be sneered at. A later season goes even further by offering a racist stereotype of a Congolese immigrant who gives his own daughter an exorcism. Waterloo Road agrees with some of the most conservative aspects of religious ideology and morality, but rolls its eyes at the idea of religion itself, depicting it only in the most melodramatic light while quietly agreeing with some of its outdated moral values. Faith isn’t a topic encountered much in contemporary British social realism – Terence Davies is one of the few examples of a director who has routinely explored the subject, and even that’s in response to his own atheism. Waterloo Road, as is the case with any topic it tackled, didn’t have the curiosity required to ever do it justice, never looking beyond whichever tabloid headlines formed the inspiration for each episode.
This might be an inherent flaw with the soap opera format, but Waterloo Road never feigned any interest in starting a cultural conversation in the way Coronation Street, Eastenders or Hollyoaks often would via the introduction of LGBTQ characters, or via months-long storylines handling issues from teenage pregnancy to sexual assault. Waterloo Road merely wanted to react to topics in sensationalised ways, and casually forget plot lines the second they ceased to be relevant. Nowhere is this more damning than in season three, where former pupil Lewis Seddon (Craig Fitzpatrick), who sexually assaulted one teacher and threatened to kill another, is suddenly working in the school canteen, his previous actions never mentioned again.
Paul Laverty would conduct intensive research prior to writing any of his screenplays with Ken Loach, speaking to people affected by the issues he sought to explore. The Waterloo Road writers’ room seemed to just leaf through a few tabloid articles relevant to each sensationalised topic they covered. It’s naturally a warped view of life up north for this reason, the pupils all representing aspects of a news culture obsessed with knife crime and teen pregnancy, many of the adults resigned to accepting this as the way of life, long settled into their reactionary ways. It’s a heightened reality presented as gritty realism, designed predominantly to generate reactionary responses from any viewers foolish enough to think this was an accurate depiction of the average state school.
Only as a depiction of the North does Waterloo Road feel particularly insightful; equally divorced from reality, but informative of the ways other parts of the country view large swathes of the “Red Wall” now. It’s unrecognisable to anybody actually from there, but that’s beside the point – with its characterisations of quietly conservative teachers and a next generation of violent, rebellious school kids, the show unintentionally created a perfect shorthand that would help the rest of the country assume this was why many older people in this area would suddenly turn Tory. Waterloo Road rarely reflected school life during the waning New Labour years accurately, but if a good work of social realism can perfectly encapsulate our times, then the best a bad example of the genre can be is prophetic.
Tsai Ming-liang’s latest film Days follows Kang (played by long-time collaborator and muse Lee Kang-sheng), a drifting and presumably grief-stricken man as he deals with muscle pains in his back and neck (supposedly acquired when a shard of porcelain got lodged there during the shooting of 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God). Simultaneous to his movement, we cross-cut between him and Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a Thai masseur, as he goes about his daily ritual of preparing and cooking food. Kang seeks Non’s expertise by travelling to Thailand to receive a massage. The film has a circular nature as Tsai reintroduces motifs and actions from earlier in the movies’ sets and structures, returning to Non’s fire pits positioned in his living room as well as going back to Kang’s luscious forest home. There are also clear parallels between Kang and Non yet it is uncertain how they will eventually connect within the film. This sense of an obscured relationship between the two characters adds to notions of romance Tsai has developed since his first feature length film Rebels of the Neon God (1992).
The production of Days came as a surprise. Following Stray Dogs (2013), it appeared Tsai
Furthermore, the film touches on colonialism and cultural imperialism, highlighting the precarious situation in contemporary Taiwan. The impact of cultural imperialism is prevalent throughout many aspects of Tsai’s filmmaking career, not least of which can be seen to include his decision, early on in life, to move from Malaysia to Taiwan. Tsai was raised in the small town of Kuching in Malaysian Borneo, which was home to several grand theatres during the 20th century. It was through these theatres that he fostered an adoration for Japanese and Hollywood films that inspired his own creativity. Tsai moved to Taiwan in his 20s in order to study theatre and film. During the 1980s and 1990s Taiwanese cinemas and television showed a disproportionate amount of non-Taiwanese films as there wasn’t a vibrant local film industry. This discrepancy, which is ongoing today and described by Mike Walsh, an Australian academic and writer about film, as “Hollywood films…eating the lunch of the Taiwanese with a market share rising above ninety-five per cent,” shows that Taiwan is engulfed in foreign culture. It’s clear from these statistics that the stories of foreigners imported into theatres in Taiwan had a more striking resonance with audiences than locally produced films due to a lack of support for a national film culture. The uncontrollable effects of globalisation on Tsai and his upbringing are depicted through the transnational romance in Days. Mid-way through the film comes a most sensual scene in which Non massages Kang in a subtle yet suave hotel room. Their very collision is the byproduct of economic and technological developments allowing cheaper travel between countries and connections in ways previously unimaginable to occur. The tension caused by cultural imperialism can arguably be seen to date back to the conception of Taiwan as a nation-state and its turbulent history as being oppressed.
Taiwan had a largely Indigenous population when people from Mainland China began to colonise it in the 12th century. Several dialects became prevalent on the island during this time, including Hokkien. Eventually the Dutch and other European nations saw the importance of the island nation, seizing power over it before Japan took it over in 1895, wresting control of the country until the end of World War Two. During this time a degree of oppression was enforced over Taiwanese people in order to stop locals practicing their own cultural norms and values, including preventing them from speaking their own languages. This theme is accentuated again in the scene when Kang leaves his hotel room, wandering around before seeing Non. Whilst there isn’t any dialogue, the emphasis of the soundscape in this scene rests on general city impressions like motorbikes and cars rushing by. This absence detaches the viewer from the film and causes the audience to resonate with Kang’s disillusion towards the city. Tsai’s decision to challenge the conventions of language by incorporating very little dialogue and removing subtitles suggests a degree of exclusion similar to that which his ancestors would have experienced in Taiwan and Asia more broadly under imperial rule.
After the end of World War Two, Mainland China soon erupted into civil war between Mao Tse-tung’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Chang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC). Eventually, Chang resolved to establish the ROC and his differing politics to that of Mao on the island of Taiwan. Taiwan was considered a beacon of hope for the West during Mao Tse-tung’s leadership until Nixon recognised the PRC in 1972. The country was informally referred to as “the Taiwan miracle,” due to its proliferation of consumer goods which they produced and were able to sell to the West and included cheap plastic items. One of the recurring motifs in Days is the small jukebox Kang gives to Non as a gift. Later in the film, we track between Kang as he returns home, hidden under his doona cover, and Non who is on the streets with the jukebox playing a jittering melody which comes from the music of Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. It is a gentle reminder that these plastic goods emerged out of the necessity to compete with the West on an economic front hiding a degree of superficiality.
Taiwan has been wedged between Mainland China and the US diplomatically and culturally and this tension hasn’t seemed to have ceased. This factor is explored in a nuanced way throughout Days. In a clever shot, Tsai lays Non on a small mattress on the floor. The cool warmth of the tropical environment is palpable as Non rests uncovered with two different pillows under his head and back. On the long pillow behind his back are the insignia of the American flag while the pillow under his head carries the British Union Jack on it. The shot remains still for a lengthy period of time as we establish that Non’s environment is in contrast with Kang who relaxes in hotel rooms on lofty levels, overlooking grand cityscapes. The symbolism of these two different pillows is able to sink in as the audience realises the impact and influence of the United States and the United Kingdom in shaping Taiwanese culture and history. To some extent, the two countries have contributed to Taiwan’s very own longevity since America acknowledged the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s.
Days shows the alienation that humans encounter in urban spaces. Tsai’s cinema has revolved around the romanticism of the city in that sprawling and disconnected characters often find themselves interconnected. The shutting of cinemas as a cause of the pandemic heightened this alienation as cities became close to desolated. This dystopian component of society is brought to the full through Tsai’s cinema and Days is testament to that.