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“What Cinema Is For”

On Film / The Daily — Oct 11, 2019
Garrett Bradley’s America (2019)

A whole lot of bibliophiles—and probably a good number of cinephiles as well—are responding with mixed feelings to yesterday’s announcement that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018 has been awarded to Olga Tokarczuk and for 2019 to Peter Handke. Scandal kept the committee from selecting a winner last year, which is why we have two new laureates this year. In the case of Tokarczuk, the Polish writer whose 2009 novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was adapted into Spoor by Agnieszka Holland in 2017, the news has been greeted with unadulterated ebullience. Her translator, Jennifer Croft, celebrated in a post for the Paris Review yesterday, and for more on Tokarczuk, her writing, and her activism, see Ruth Franklin’s recent profile for the New Yorker.

Peter Handke, the Austrian novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and director, is another matter altogether. His support for the far-right Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević has been widely condemned, and PEN America has issued a statement protesting the committee’s decision to reward “a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide.” At the same time, as Sian Cain reports for the Guardian, even Handke’s harshest critics are quick to recognize the brilliance of his early work, which includes collaborations with Wim Wenders ranging from The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) to Wings of Desire (1987).

On a brighter front, we have a bit of festival news to catch up with:

  • King Vidor, the director of such Hollywood classics as The Crowd (1928), Duel in the Sun (1946), and War and Peace (1956), will be the subject of a retrospective at the seventieth Berlinale in February.
  • Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Frances McDormand, Philippe Garrel, Nathalie Baye, and our own Peter Becker will be among the many guests at this year’s Festival Lumière, which opens tomorrow in Lyon.
  • In the run-up to its fifty-seventh edition opening on October 24, the Viennale has been posting images, statements, and stories that directors have passed along as well as brief interviews. Would you have guessed that Angela Schanelec is a fan of Bohemian Rhapsody?
  • Pamela Hutchinson has been posting daily dispatches from this year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which wraps tomorrow.
  • DOC NYC has announced its biggest lineup yet. Over three hundred films and events are scheduled for the tenth edition running from November 6 through 15 and dedicated to the late D. A. Pennebaker.

On to this week’s round:


  • Starting today, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting Garrett Bradley’s half-hour film America along with works that have inspired and informed it. The first and foremost of these is Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913), which is believed to be the oldest surviving film with an all-black cast and was rediscovered and reconstructed in 2014. Talking to Dessane Lopez Cassell at Hyperallergic, Bradley explains her decision to shoot in black and white and on 35 mm film and discusses the central conceit of imagining an entire legacy of African American cinema that has not—like seventy percent of all American features made between 1912 and 1929—been lost. “If there are 7,500 films that are missing,” she says, “and they found this one film from 1913 and it’s super progressive, what would it mean if all of that body of work was super progressive? How would we understand ‘Black cinema’ as being something that isn’t just a wave or movement in time, but this continuous simultaneous thread in ‘American cinema’?”
  • All in all, it’s been quite a week for interviews with directors. Bong Joon-ho chats with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung, telling him about a hilariously clever lie he told Harvey Weinstein that saved a shot in Snowpiercer. In the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty talks politics with Ken Loach and Xan Brooks talks business with Steven Soderbergh. Bill Forsyth looks back on his career in the Notebook with Abbey Bender, and in the Japan Times, Hirokazu Kore-eda tells Mark Schilling that he’s “not so attracted to the ‘Kore-eda-like’ stuff that people want from me.” But the conversation I want to highlight here is Evan Morgan’s with Dan Sallitt at Seattle Screen Scene. When the discussion turns to the influence of Maurice Pialat on Sallitt’s latest feature, Fourteen, Sallitt says, “Fiction doesn’t give us easy tools to deal with how discontinuous we are. And Pialat realizes that. He recognizes that there’s a great danger in simplifying things away from reality. He’s scared to death of it, actually.”
  • In an essay for Bright Lights Film Journal, Casey Jarrin draws parallels between the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and Paweł Pawlikowski, and in particular, between the near-silent lovers in L’eclisse (1962) and Cold War (2018). In both “moody cinematic dreams,” she writes, “both set in the early 1960s, every beginning has its closing shot already embedded: when characters first meet and embrace, there’s sadness in anticipation of their inevitable parting.” Cold War also “resurrects Antonioni’s visual language of lingering in the beautiful hauntings of landscape: establishing shots of trees and grasses blowing in the breeze; darkened interiors with windows that present the possibility of escape to other lives; places where characters emerge and fade in painful encounters within their mid-century misè-en-scene.”
  • The new issue of e-flux Journal features Aaron Schuster’s in-depth analysis of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, the 1939 film that MGM marketed with a winning two-word campaign: “Garbo laughs.” Here’s the gist of Schuster’s argument: “Far from the Soviet heroine simply abandoning her political ideals after falling for a Western gigolo, and by extension, the West itself, the film proposes—as improbable as this sounds—a kind of screwball communism, which sets Ninotchka’s revolutionary commitments in a sympathetic light (James Harvey calls her ‘the closest thing to a convincing socialist heroine the English-speaking cinema has yet produced’).”
  • To wrap, I want to reach back to a piece I missed last week, filmmaker Robert Greene’s assessment of the state of the documentary for Hyperallergic. “Empowered by technology and inspired by frisky works of the past, a generation has turned away from journalistic orthodoxy toward emphasizing beauty and ambiguity,” he writes. “Many documentarians may use journalistic standards as a guide, and many indeed want to inform the public, bear witness, or even change the world, but the most audacious and arresting nonfiction cinema has little in common with reporting. As Laura Poitras, the Oscar-winning director of films like The Oath (2010) and Citizenfour (2014), told me, ‘A film about an important topic is not a film if it’s not cinematic. It’s not what cinema is for.’”

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