Summer Reading from Film Quarterly

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018)

The new issue of Film Quarterly, the journal that will be celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary next year, features a special focus on Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a deeply personal tribute to the maid and nanny who cared for his family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. One month before last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Netflix, to the surprise of many, picked up distribution rights to the exquisitely designed black-and-white film, its dialogue in Spanish with dashes of Mixtec. When Cannes and Netflix locked horns over French rules regulating theatrical runs and digital streaming, the premiere was postponed to last fall’s Venice Film Festival, where Roma won the Golden Lion. A triumphant parade through the fall festival circuit culminated with an Oscar for best foreign language film and two more for Cuarón for directing and cinematography.

Carla Marcantonio argues that the release of Roma “radically alters the world of the movie business and the public’s expectations of what kinds of films might triumph on digital platforms or during the awards season. That’s an epic story that cannot be written yet. Its status as a watershed moment in film history will need to be written later, with the benefit of hindsight.” During the awards campaign, Marcantonio served as an interpreter for Yalitza Aparicio, who stars as Cleo, the family maid, so she’s naturally more immediately interested in “thinking about which discourses coalesced around the film and which didn’t.”

As Sergio de la Mora points out, Roma is “part of a distinct trend in contemporary Latin American cinema: stories of domestic workers, servants, and their masters, many of them made by women directors . . . What differentiates Roma from these films is its reception, its social-action tie-in, its local/global reach, the reputation of its director, and the eloquence with which (his) camera portrays domestic labor.” For Amelie Hastie, “Cuarón manages a balance between planes—political, historical, social, and aesthetic—in nearly every frame of the film. It is that complexity of planes, often simultaneously rendered, that deepens what I feel while watching this film. Thus, whereas the ‘appearance of beings and of the world’ might be ‘simple’ for [critic and theorist André] Bazin, the love from which it originates and the love that is inscribed in Cuarón’s films is not.”

Also freely available online from the new issue is Kartik Nair’s conversation with Daniel Steinhart about his new book, Runaway Hollywood: Internationalizing Postwar Production and Location Shooting. The “exhaustively researched” study is a history of a particular moment when studios, facing the duel challenges of the end of vertical integration and the rise of television, started looking beyond southern California. As Nair notes, “runaway productions begin to look more like emergent assemblages of people, discourses, and practices—multilingual film crews and ad hoc professional types, flying film prints and wired cables, union protests and tax havens, far-flung screening rooms and printing laboratories, unexpected breaks in filming for rain and tea—all coming together to power a spectacular new visual imagination in American cinema after World War II.” From July 19 through August 24, the UCLA Film & Television Archive will present a series of “some of the now classic films that came out of this significant period of industrial and aesthetic transformation.”

In Julie Rich, the film critic played by Susan Strasberg in Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and an obvious stand-in for Pauline Kael, Erika Balsom finds “a resilient figuration of what it is to be a woman who cares, and writes, about cinema. She is pushed around, insulted, not taken seriously, on the edges of a boys’ club—yet she is still there, still writing, still living for it.” Kael, a regular contributor to FQ, was considered as a potential editor in the 1950s. She launched her infamous feud with Andrew Sarris in the spring 1963 issue with her essay, “Circles and Squares,” and the following issue carried Sarris’s counterattack, “The Auteur Theory and the Perils of Pauline.”

As it happens, New York’s Quad Cinema is currently celebrating what would have been Kael’s 100th birthday on June 19 with a series of twenty-five films “that she championed as well as a few that she dismissed.” Kael aside, though, the gist of Balsom’s argument is that to “appreciate a film’s ‘quality’ with minimal regard for social factors, with minimal awareness of the biases inherent in such a stance—an attitude widely held, even by critics who would never speak of PC pedants—is to blithely inhabit the privilege of a false universalism. The growing prominence of writing on cinema by women and people of color heralds a reckoning with that falsity.”

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