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“Trivial, Vulgar, and Sublime”

The Daily — Mar 12, 2021
Nozipho McClean in Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance (2020)

On Monday, we lost Leon Gast, whose 1996 documentary When We Were Kings won a nod from the jury at Sundance, a Spirit Award, and an Oscar. Gast had been hired in 1974 to oversee a film about a music festival in Zaire, but his focus shifted to the “Rumble in the Jungle,” a face-off between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that became a global media event. When We Were Kings is “really two films at once,” writes Kelefa Sanneh in the essay accompanying our release, “a serious and sometimes unsettling portrait of clashing cultures and mixed motives, and also a funky and picturesque movie about a grand caper in Africa.” Gast was eighty-five.

This week’s highlights:

  • What makes Merawi Gerima’s conversation with Ephraim Asili in Filmmaker truly outstanding is the detailed focus on the nuts and bolts of making a first feature—Residue and The Inheritance, respectively. “It’s like, that first feature: you only get one, right?” says Asili. “What are you going to do battle with in that one film? You can’t do it with everything. First and foremost, I’m making something that goes into what I’ll call the church of cinema. Everything that ever existed goes into it—good, bad, ugly—and I’m putting my entry into that. That church is indifferent, it doesn’t care what I’m putting in. It’s just taking my deposit, right? So, when I’m thinking about the content and the activism in it, if I want my deposit to stand out in that church, it’s going to have to do some sort of service for that structure, for the cinema. If I’m not thinking about it formally, I don’t think the rest of it matters—because it might be hot for a minute, but in the long game, no one’s going to care.”

  • Acting has been on Richard Brody’s mind this week. He’s written for the New Yorker about Roberto Rossellini placing Ingrid Bergman among nonprofessional performers in Stromboli (1950). “Here, the casting didn’t just serve or heighten the story,” he writes, “it became the story.” Brody has also put together a list of the thirty greatest performances of this century so far and explains why Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) belong at the top of it. “Too often,” he writes, “actors are praised for their ‘craft,’ a virtuosic perfection that suggests study, displays effort, and fits roles appropriately and plausibly. The great performances are distinguished by a frame-breaking emotional immediacy (whether explosive or implosive)—and, moreover, by the ways that they express not only emotions but personal and original ideas.”

  • At the center of Greg Gerke’s piece for the Smart Set on literary and cinematic style, and to an extent, on fathers and sons as well, is Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958). “Mann’s American pictorial style is reminiscent of a certain local painterly fashion, though almost with a roughshod quality born of poor barroom paintings, yet more Winslow Homer than Sargent in terms of color,” writes Gerke. “Mann stencils in the brutality and violence that is his world—he knew where to put the camera and how to frame the high and low discrepancies that made up the wonderfully awful period of Manifest Destiny in his incredible series of westerns, freely oscillating from vista to a ground-level close-up of sudden carnage.”

  • In his latest newsletter, Zach Campbell celebrates the vitality of Hollywood movies made in the 1930s, focusing in particular on James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931). “Something can be funny, erotic, anthropologically insightful, tragic, formally playful, and viscerally affecting, all ‘in turn’ but also ‘of a piece,’” he argues. “This often translates to a feeling of looseness, or leisure. Many movies, especially a lot of new narrative ones, feel straitjacketed in at least one of two ways. They might be extruded through a screenwriting program’s insistence on ‘moving the plot forward.’ It’s a relentless focus on a certain type of efficiency at the expense of much else.”

  • Sight & Sound carries on dipping into its archive and pulling up gems such as Rui Nogueira’s 1969 conversation with Gloria Swanson and Margaret Hinxman’s report from the set of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). The latest is Chris Darke’s conversation with Claire Denis for the July 2000 issue about her childhood in Africa and her decision to turn Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor into Beau travail (1999). “I always thought of Herman Melville as a brother in the sense of sharing his feelings of sadness, nostalgia, and disappointment, the sense of having lost something,” she said. “For me Africa is like the seas Melville missed so much . . . I want to share what’s troubling me, to convey that to others. If there wasn’t this slightly insane desire to share things that are fleeting I think I’d change jobs, write books or plays. No other art form is as simultaneously trivial, vulgar, and sublime as cinema.”

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