Thursday, March 24, 2005

Walter Benjamin and Film

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an intriguing article titled “Is a Cinema Studies Degree the New M.B.A.?” Written by Elizabeth Van Ness, the article explores the idea that cinema/media is a new form of literacy, a professional language of the future. The article highlights several students who have applied their film school degrees in other realms such as public policy, the military, and other art media. One of the students profiled in the article—one who hoped to do work in the arena of public policy—states, “People endowed with social power and prestige are able to use film and media images to reinforce their power—we need to look to film to grant power to those who are marginalized or currently not represented.”

This quote brought me back to the work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the influential German-Jewish literary critic and philosopher. In my grad school days, we studied one of his seminal essays THE WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION. Originally published in 1935, this essay explores the impact of photography and film on the traditional world of art. It is a rich and far-ranging work; anyone could go on for days (or spend lots of pages) discussing the various nuances of his ideas. Two things must be noted about Benjamin and this essay: one being that, unlike many of his intellectual contemporaries, he viewed the rise of the film medium as a good thing; and two, that he believed film has the potential to have an enormous positive effect on the common man. Benjamin, a Marxist, advocated for the people to take up the camera and portray themselves, while warning that the “capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.” (section X). Back in 1994, I wrote this musing in a journal kept for a film history class:

“Both [Russian filmmaker Dziga] Vertov and Benjamin called for the workers to take the camera in hand and represent themselves. The act would be both empowering and subversive. Benjamin warned, however, that the great ‘danger’ of film is becoming a circus of the masses. The popular TV show “America’s Funniest Home Videos” perfectly embodies Benjamin’s fears. “The people” send in their homemade videos, usually of family events peppered with slapstick mishaps, which are aired for all America to see. The studio audience then votes for “the funniest” and the winner receives a cash prize…Can a revolutionary idea retain its dignity and still become popular to the masses? I don’t think so, not in this society.”

What a difference a decade can make! I was wringing my hands, so to speak, over “America’s Funniest Home Videos”! While one can argue that things have gone downhill, with the explosion of “reality TV” competitions, it can also be said there is great promise on the horizon with the rise of new technology—affordable digital cameras, home filmmaking software, etc.—the opening up of alternative outlets for presentation, and the new emphasis on media literacy programs in the schools.

Benjamin’s ideas, I believe, are just as relevant today as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. This site offers a very comprehensive view of Benjamin’s life and work, and includes the full text for The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This site offers a concise discussion—a sort of Cliff’s Notes—on The Work of Art

Benjamin, a German Jew, committed suicide in 1940, believing that the Nazi’s were closing in on him at his hiding location in Spain. The woman that initially helped Benjamin escape, Lisa Fittko, died earlier this month at the age of 95. Fittko’s obituary, while covering this remarkable woman’s life, fills in the story of Benjamin’s last days.

P.S. Benjamin was a highly quotable writer. This quote has nothing to do with film or The Work of Art…. I just loved it for its wittiness:

"Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby."

A list of Benjamin quotes can be found here.

Monday, March 21, 2005

A Trip to South by Southwest

Yesterday, I returned home from a trip to South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. I unfortunately could not attend for the entire week, but for the few days I was there, I saw a lot of great films. Hopefully, these films will make it to theaters, TV, or DVD in the near future. Here’s a rundown of what I saw:

I started the fest with a documentary called CRISIS IS OUR BRAND. A former president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, nicknamed “Goni”, seeking re-election hires former Clinton advisor James Carville's private political consulting firm to mastermind his campaign. The firm's political savvy gets “Gomi” elected with only 22% of the popular vote. The firm, however, backs the wrong horse, so to say. Within several months, the new president runs Bolivia into the ground, with mass rioting, bloodshed, and eventual presidential resignation and exile. The film is a frank look at American involvement (meddling?) in Latin American politics. I don't know if this will make it into the theaters, but it is ripe for TV like PBS’s Frontline series or perhaps HBO.

I saw several of documentaries, and I think my favorite of the entire trip was called YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME, chronicling the life of Roky Erickson, the charismatic lead singer of "The 13th Floor Elevators", a groundbreaking 1960s psychedelic band from Austin. Roky, considered an unsung legend in the eyes of most rock historians, has lived a turbulent life marked by drug use, diagnosed schizophrenia, and mental institution incarceration. The heart of the story, however, is the fight for “custody” of Roky, pitting his well-meaning but highly eccentric mother against his youngest brother. This was a very moving film. The director was in attendance, and while there was no distribution deal at that time, he was already talking about a DVD. Perhaps the biggest treat of the viewing was seeing Roky, himself. In fact, Roky sat directly behind me during the screening--which was very cool!

The first feature I saw was SOUTHERN BELLES, a light-hearted comedy about two Georgia girls named “Belle”, living in a rural trailer park. Figuring there is more to life outside their little town, the girls start dreaming of a new life in the big city—Atlanta. Their best-laid plans, however, are continuously interrupted by clueless boyfriends, crappy jobs, and small town inertia. The film was very humorous, with a nice story that, despite stock characters of rednecks and trailer park denizens, never drifts over the line into cliché. The film was buoyed by a good ensemble cast of relatively unknown actors

Although it was categorized as a documentary, CULTURE CLASH IN AMERICCA is really a “concert film” featuring the edgy comedy of the theatre troupe Culture Clash. Directed by Emilio Estevez (yes, that Emilio Estevez), the doc is a filmed performance of the group’s titular play in front of a live audience. Pulling from thousands of interviews of Americans conducted by Culture Clash themselves, the group creates skits and dialogues that explore the rich diversity of American life, touching on such “flashpoint” issues as race, sexuality, and politics. The film was very funny. Culture Clash performs this play throughout the country in theaters; I’m glad they will now reach bigger audiences through this film.

Another musician documentary I saw was DERAILROADED: INSIDE THE MIND OF LARRY “WILD MAN” FISCHER. Through his association with Frank Zappa, Wild Man Fischer became a fixture on the L.A. underground music scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Roky Erickson, above, Wild Man Fischer is plagued by schizophrenia. The film follows his ubiquitous 40-year career and documents the harrowing effects of his debilitating illness. I didn’t like this as much as the Erickson doc, but it was very interesting, nonetheless.

The final film I saw was an indie feature called STRAIGHT LINE. Written, directed, acted and edited by first-time filmmaker Sean Ackerman on a miniscule budget, Straight Line follows a young man, haunted by loss, as he drives from Montana to Panama to win back his girlfriend. As on most cinematic journeys, the young man learns more about himself and the world around him as the miles progress. The film had an interesting look, using three different formats—35 mm, 16mm, and digital—to tell the story. I always admire someone who has the grit and passion to get a film made. This is a very good first effort from Ackerman and hopefully we will see more work from him in the future.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Movie Rentals, Week of 3/7/05

SAME TIME NEXT YEAR (1978): I rented this film in honor of Alan Alda’s Oscar nomination for THE AVIATOR (2004). Same Time Next Year, based on an award-winning play by Bernard Slade, follows George (Alda) and Doris (Ellen Burstyn) as they carry on a clandestine affair—meeting for only one weekend, once a year—for 25 years. With the action beginning in the 1950s, the narrative follows the couple as they negotiate their uncommon love against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. The movie retains the feel of a play—limited sets, very small cast, etc. Alan Alda is such a great actor, and this film underscored this for me. Thoroughly enjoyable!

THE VERVE: THIS IS MUSIC: THE SINGLES 92-98 (2004): This DVD is a compendium of music videos from one of the great British bands of the 1990s THE VERVE. I rented this because I loved their 1998 hit Bittersweet Symphony and its accompanying music video, with leader Richard Ashcroft striding down a street in all his snarling, beautiful, art school boy glory. I must admit I came to The Verve somewhat late (they’re not even together anymore), so the rest of the singles on the DVD served as a revelation. So much so, that I went out and bought their cd URBAN HYMNS, which has been on continuous play ever since.

LA VIRGEN DE LA LUJURIA (THE VIRGIN OF LUST) (2002): I tried so hard to like this film by Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein. On paper, the film sounded great: “..neorealist drama follows unambitious waiter “Nacho”, who spends his days toiling in a 1940s Vera Cruz café and his nights pleasuring himself while fantasizing about killing Spain’s General Franco. Enter “Lola”, a licentious, opium-addled political extremist and soon the head-over-heels Nacho finds himself in a sadomasochistic tryst with the hooker in this daring allegorical tale.” (thanks, Netflix). The look of the film was very interesting, very reminiscent of old Hollywood sets, but I just couldn’t make myself care for the characters. At 2 hours 20 minutes, the film is overly long and tedious. I stuck it out as long as I could, but at the 2-hour mark, I was climbing the walls. I just couldn’t see it through, with the finish line in sight. I actually shut it off, which is very rare for me.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

FESPACO: Africa's Premier Film Festival

The New York Times > International > Africa > Ouagadougou Journal: Africa Makes Fine Films. Of Course, Projector May Fail.

This article on FESPACO, the Pan African Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Fasso, is a nice companion piece to my recent posting on Nigerian Videofilm Culture. While highlighting broader cinematic trends throughout contemporary Africa, the article also explores the unique problems of getting African films shown to African audiences.