Sighting America

Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, 1984

Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, 1984

A train moves across the screen, slowly disappearing into the distant pre-dawn horizon while the sky above gradually shifts from the dark blue-black of night to the ruddy orange glow of the coming day. A scene equally poignant and contrived in its means, it defines a moment of beginning and end, a pause between past and future that lasts forever and not long enough. So ends Terence Davies’s 1995 film The Neon Bible and so began the germ of an idea that finds its current expression in this film series, a look at foreign directors making films in and about America.

Inevitably, viewing The Neon Bible involves observing Davies contend with a massive inventory of preoccupations, icons and themes of Hollywood’s America. His vanishing train, as a site of generic and authorial contestation, embodies a stock image potent enough to represent the “everytrain” of American film and at the same time the idiosyncratic train of Davies’s America. The gap between the two begets much of the lure and impact of the films in this series where the attraction promises a fresh perspective, offering the shock of the familiar and new intertwined. For us, thinking about this attraction raises the following questions: what knowledge does a foreign perspective on America and American culture produce, and, conversely, how do these provisional categories, once uttered, begin to break down under closer scrutiny? What critical and aesthetic distance manifests and in the same breath collapses when someone like Davies turns to an unfamiliar, yet all too available (albeit highly mediated) subject, in this case the American South of the late 30s and early 40s? That is, what stereotypes and pre-conceived notions and images haunt these films? are they adequately re-cast or sufficiently critiqued? should they be?

The Southerner (Renoir, 1945)
The Young One (Bunuel, 1960)
Fury (Lang, 1936)
Last Exit to Brooklyn (Edel, 1989)
Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)
The Neon Bible (Davies, 1995)
Sankofa (Gerima, 1993)
…and the earth did not swallow him (Perez, 1995)
Stroszek (Herzog, 1977)
Arizona Dream (Kusturica, 1993)

Due to the clichés that comprise and denote something like “America, the represented,” each director confronts a crisis in meaning that largely stems from the “given-ness” of his subject. As a result, the films become less evident of a recognizable and well-worn surface (including night trains, billboards, the expansive terrain of the West, and urban labyrinths of New York) than of a testament to the unknown if not unfathomable. In short, films like Paris, Texas and Last Exit to Brooklyn perform (and to various degrees, exploit) the shortcomings and insights of their own presumed innocence. Moreover, in the same way that images of trains and vast western spaces are readily transformed into tropes of “America, the knowable,” this innocence is vulnerable to a similar transformation when faced with equally entrenched views on America. Whether these views emerge as a thesis arguing how relations between economic, political and social conditions shaped the New World’s “noble experiment” (de Tocqueville), a fable depicting America as the blessed nation of freedom and opportunity (the Puritanical “city on a hill”), or a muckraking tract decrying the greed and violence inherent in a society based on competitive materialism, they reinforce powerful cultural beliefs, and we are hard-pressed not to feel their influence.

Yet, given that these ideas are at least valid for contestation, it is surprising how strenuously the films avoid co-opting them to any large degree. For example, both The Young One and Last Exit to Brooklyn play with the idea of social criticism (in the areas of race and labor relations respectively), but neither film aspires to be an authoritative indictment or even an exposé. Sankofa offers us a very different social criticism by speaking outside of a fraudulent history of the black experience of America and a conspiring Hollywood that has helped to perpetuate this history. The Southerner and Stroszek delineate an America that is a land of freedom and opportunity, but they are even more interested in the shortcomings and impossibilities inherent in such a dream. And, though their titles suggest some sort of grounding, Arizona Dream and Paris, Texas turn the idea of the well-constructed nation on its head emphasizing the bizarre and distorted features of both the landscape and its inhabitants. In fact, if these ten films ultimately have a common thread, it is the actualization of the absurd, or the prospect of a reality (filmed, or otherwise) overflowing its bounds. The unknown amplified, the known disguised.

– Joe Carey and Jon Wotman 

(originally published by the Documentary Film Group, University of Chicago)

Best Films of 1997

Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter, 1997

Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter, 1997

“It takes a little time, sometimes, to turn the Titanic around”

- Amy Grant

It was a radically uneven year. There were moments of unparalleled beauty and moments of disappointing mediocrity. I started out with a series of my own (shared with Mr. Wotman), which had its own unevenness (evidence of growing pains, I’d like to think), and ended in a classroom watching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The pressures of presenting a series of films to a paying audience (yes, both at Doc and Rutgers) proved to be as serious as a heartbeat and often exhilarating (Contempt was a hard sell, but worth it). I also felt myself drifting to/from two very different shores: the active, almost obsessive Chicago film culture, and Philadelphia / South(ern New) Jersey’s lackluster — at times self-conscious, at times unapologetic — film scene.

As in the early part of 1996, I found myself immersed in films that you would be hard-pressed to find outside of the classroom: French poetic realism of the 30s, Italian neo-realism of the 1940s-50s, and various achievements of the silent era including Stroheim’s Greed and De Mille’s The Cheat. In the street, I felt a heaviness that I’ve managed to avoid up to this point, the burden of commercialism and the thin taste of obsolescence. Bus posters advertising Starship Troopers, Alien: Resurrection and The Game lacked originality and also, despite of or because of the healthy cash flow, proved just how trite movie-going can be. Critics seemed a bit lost too, sorting through hundreds of films, not sure if they were missing the point or if indeed the tail was wagging the dog. I’ve never felt the vacuity of recycled themes, story-lines, and gestures as much as I have this year. Even the quiet moments in cinema were enveloped by the wake of last year’s “independent” triumph. Films like Ulee’s Gold (which I did not see) might have never made it to the screen or might have held more value in my eyes had they not been sold as the next Sling Blade, or some other fading middle-brow art house success. Of course the mass cultists among us will say that such recycled ballast is what Hollywood does best. Relish the shit, the more the better, perhaps even the more self-aware the better. It’s the end of the century, the millennium. What have we got to lose, let alone to hold on to? In response, I offer the following:

Top 5:

  1. The Sweet Hereafter
  2. Irma Vep
  3. La Ceremonie
  4. Boogie Nights
  5. Ice Storm

The Sweet Hereafter redeemed an otherwise disappointing year. As I watched it, I felt I was witnessing such a finely-wrought film. Elegant and yet not as icy as some of his earlier work, this film could be Egoyan’s best. If Rosenbaum thinks he bit off more than he should here, I am thankful for the ambition. Truly brilliant.

Regarding the other four, Vep still lingers and mutates in my sub-conscious and Ceremonie gets kudos for a great ending. Boogie Nights and Ice Storm both deal with 70s American culture in one way or another, with varying success (even though Boogie Nights strays into the 80s to accommodate the video age). While the symbolism and overt morality of both were hard to endure at times, their inclusion here is at once evidence of sporadically exciting filmmaking and my relatively short list of first-run outings this year.

Like Jon, I don’t know if people will remember these films in years to come (though I am not convinced that Titanic will be remembered for anything other than its budget, and the fact that Hollywood execs are better at steering clear of imminent disaster than their forebears). This troubles me. The vagaries of indelibility have always been part and parcel to pop culture. My decaying Rolling Stone magazines testify: Steven Speilberg winks at the camera, arms wrapped around E.T., and Harrison Ford smirks from beneath a perfectly weathered brow, coiled whip in hand — images surely a part of our collective (American?) consciousness. And then there are the has-beens and better-left-forgottens, the likes of Lucas’s Howard the Duck and Ron Howard’s Willow, films that surely have a reserved space in the “dustbins of history.” But wait; I tilt the camera slightly, and narrative film transforms into a mature art form with a history of achievements such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, La Strada, etc. — films that surely shape a canon that even Harold Bloom can’t ignore.

In the thick of it, in the heat of the moment, the here and now of choosing which films touched us most deeply, which films opened our eyes widest, should we keep this history in mind? Should the longevity of our choices concern us? or should we resist such an impulse? Historically speaking, movie-going has mostly been an ephemeral experience, a fleeting impression that never quite satisfies. Today, given the archive of video tape and various digital technologies, the week’s offerings return to us again and again, in different forms, and at different prices. We witness a movie’s gradual, well-orchestrated devaluation from today’s must-see to tomorrow’s clearance special at Target. I am reminded of the torn corners of those bus posters (and the posters in Contempt), and again I am forced to choose between reveling in this transience or to try to hold on to something more lasting.

Best First Reel: Lost Highway

I recently watched a show on Bravo, The Actor’s Studio, where Mike Nichols claimed that the most crucial part of a film is its opening sequence. As a Twizzler-chomping movie-goer I’d have to agree and admit that the first minutes of a film are often the most defining. The obvious: it sets the tone, sets up expectations, and the like. We settle in, sometimes wait for the credits to get on with it, and then we are either hooked or already frowning. What are some films with great openings? Fargo? Contempt? Touch of Evil? In retrospect, are they great because they are preludes, the beginning of a greater work of art? or do they manage to stand on their own?

Best Summer Flic: My Best Friend’s Wedding

My indulgence. The summer began in Chicago for me. Then, in Philadelphia, something broke. I wound up avoiding/missing most of the blockbusters (didn’t see MIB or Lost World). I saw Chasing Amy (late?). Went to see Contact with high expectations, which were quickly dashed. Meanwhile, I watched the undying undulations of the ever-saucy Mae West and the stiff Marlene Dietrich (in class). The hot but not too hot days bled into weeks. Maybe I remembered Wedding because of all the Chicago locales. In a certain sense, it felt like this year’s Flirting with Disaster: a riot, great ensemble sequences, and cell phones attached to pretty faces.

Best Repertory: Ugetsu

My first taste of this inspired director. Like many films that I find especially moving, Ugetsu had a graceful rhythm and delicate pace. A cinema of gestures, Mizoguchi’s style is such that he begs to be deciphered but does so with little more than a nudge.

Most Over-rated: L.A. Confidential / Cop Land

A dead-heat tie here. Even with Spacey’s screen presence, Confidential was just too referential, even for this tired old post-modern apologist. Every line felt delivered and every shot felt like a part of a how-to noir manual. Cop Land was yet another waste of an incredible cast; but then, aren’t all incredible casts wasted? Beyond that, Cop Land had a promising beginning but then quickly deteriorated into a run-of-the-mill ho-hummer. Machismo moves to Jersey.

Best Films of 1996

Jacques Rivette, Haut Bas Fragile, 1995

Jacques Rivette, Haut Bas Fragile, 1995

I can recall seeing just over 50 films for the year, including videos and first-time screen viewings that I’ve already caught on video. Of these 50+, maybe 25 are first-run releases. That’s not much to come up with a year-end top 10, so I’ve opted for a few 5s.

Top 5 of 1996:

  1. Haut Bas Fragile
  2. English Patient
  3. Dead Man
  4. Convent
  5. Big Night

Top 5 of any year (that I saw for the first time and on screen):

  1. Opening Night (the unsurpassable Cassavetes)
  2. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
  3. Satin Slipper (Oliveira)
  4. Short Film About Killing (Kieslowski)
  5. Une Femme est Une Femme (Godard) (saw it on video last year but the ‘scope print at the Film Center was a completely different experience)

Top 5 that I wanted to include but which ultimately fell short to varying degrees:

  1. The Second Time/Land and Freedom (tie)
  2. 12 Monkeys
  3. Neon Bible
  4. Hamlet
  5. Get on the Bus

Top 5 films that I wish I had missed:

  1. Stealing Beauty
  2. Basquiat
  3. Trainspotting
  4. Courage Under Fire
  5. Star Trek: First Contact

Top 5 films that I’m glad I missed (managed to avoid/walk out on):

  1. ID4/Twister (tie)
  2. Space Jam
  3. Ransom
  4. Striptease
  5. Nutty Professor

Honorable mentions go to Gold Diggers of 1933, the first film I ever projected, and Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, the re-discovery of the year. I saw Meshes years ago, remembered it visually but not by title or filmmaker, and was surprised to see it again in Cobb Hall last winter.

The jury is still out on Flirt, Calendar and Goodbye South, Goodbye. Also, biggest mistake of the year has to be deciding to go see Almodovar’s Flower of my Secret instead of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Finally, to include video, I have to give a nod to Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives as the best of Thursday Nights at Jon’s Place and I must mention Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge, films that seem to thin and yet grow more complex each time I sit down with them.

Best wishes for ‘97. Highlights already within view: Spring quarter at DOC should be full of missed opportunities like Waves and Secrets (for me) and hopefully the Egoyan series; Suburbia and Crash cometh; the series; Hitch and the French New Wave at the Box and Film Center respectively. And who knows what Hollywood releases are bound to capture our imagination. Evita?

Open Letter

Louise Brooks

Immortality, or What is the Meaning of Life.

Outside Temp: -58 C., Over Chicago heading towards Kansas City, 2750 km / 1707 m, Time: 3:35 PM PST, Altitude: 10,700 m / 35000 ft., Land Speed: 744 km/hr / 493 mph

Date: 11 March 1994

Dear Reader,

Our airlines have grown quite sophisticated. In between the usual “entertainment” programming, the screen before me (actually over several rows of heads) provides a well-documented, detailed assessment of my current position in the time-space continuum we lovingly call the Universe. I look on a white symbol of an aircraft floating just west of what I have come to recognize as a graphical representation of Lake Michigan. Different views shuffle by on rotation; progress is marked by distance to the next ATC region (I suspect) marked by “O” while our final destination, in this case San Francisco, is marked by a dot surrounded by a diamond figure. Next flyby, or flyover, Iowa City. Funny, I seem to recall driving this area last June while crossing the States heading east. How much further can this go? Perhaps cameras mounted on our wings giving us a live “feed” of the journey “in progress.”

(6:00 local time)

Reader, can you tell that I am fascinated by this? A technological extravagance perhaps but also enthralling and frightening in an existential sort of way.

My sometimes flight attendant just sauntered by. Actually, she is too tense and thin to saunter. Rather, she stepped, or skipped by, like a sprite. Yet, her dark eyes seem so very bored. I wonder what lies behind. . . and how might those eyebrows arch? Her appearance reminds me of Louise Brooks: very short black hair, clever ears, close to her head, and an angular jaw accented by sharp tendrils of hair. But her voice betrays a less than inspired spirit. Perhaps it is the circumstance. As Paul Westerberg reminds us, “She aint nothin’ but a waitress in the sky. . .  ah ah uh. . .” Her utterances are flat, monotone, too nasal maybe. All of her features point to her full mouth, only to emit such disappointment.

Ah, but I digress and I am heavy with an abundance of unfair judgment. What if roles were reversed? One can only guess. . . (editorial note: Mrs. Doubtfire has begun and a wide body has bumped into my shoulder, struggling down the all too narrow aisle). Getting back to me-as-object-of-perception, I find it disturbing for someone to judge based simply on appearance. Yet, are we not guilty of this all too often? We learn to temper and adjust our first impressions but despite our efforts they continue to influence our thinking (Sally Field actually looks decent in this movie, although I’m beginning to feel a little disoriented without my reassuring altitude and graphical progress registers. . .)

So where was I? A hard question to answer. Here I sit, still yet moving (very fast I expect) wondering what you are doing there. Across the page, on the other side, you sit reading these words, and I hope coming to some understanding of them. I don’t doubt that you have come to wonder if these meanderings will in fact lead anywhere. Frankly, no guarantee can be offered at this point (which is probably just beginning to peek at the majestic profile of the Rocky Mountains). My hand tires and my bladder swells. A rest is in order. Perhaps you should take in a stray thought or two, nothing too serious. Are you thirsty? Have a drink. If you know where I am right now, call me or perhaps write a quick note.

Definitely sprite-like, and more content than I initially thought. Perhaps her stoic look is a guise. My opinion grows, still without opening one question to her, save: “What kind of enchilada?” and “Do you have mineral water?”

So, how was the respite reader? I hope you took my advice and left these words for a while. While I waited for the vacant light to go on, I spied out a small portal. The sun sets and a sea of clouds race beneath our wings. I was reminded of Wordsworth’s view atop Mount. . . what was the name of that mountain in his “Prelude”? As I looked on the graying skyscape I thought of you, though I do not yet know your name.

Please don’t take offense. I’ve addressed letters in the past without knowing their content and in this case I want the destination to surface along with the words and thoughts. You see, interestingly enough, you know more at this point than I do (I take it back, Sally Field is looking a little ragged. . . if only I could hear her voice, a $4.00 privilege). So then, who will have the endurance, the inclination to read further? While most letters carry a tone and structure suited for their intended readers, here such form is undetermined, even undermined. Of course, I do have a couple of ideas.

But let’s get to the point.

As I stretch my neck, feeling that “I’ve been sitting in/on an airplane too long” discomfort, I muse on the not so light-hearted notion of immortality or perhaps less precisely, the meaning of life. Spurred by his book, Language, Thought, and Action, I contemplate Hayakawa’s thoughts on the fundamental use of the verbal world (language) — to learn and cope (often unwittingly) through cooperation with the “life process” that surrounds and infuses us. By using experience and lessons learned by previous generations, we are able to minimize and to some extent eliminate unnecessary repetition. For example, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we are given moments adding to a lifetime to build upon these past accomplishments and, moreover, to grow as an individual amid many roles: human, woman/man, citizen, politician, son/daughter, lover, sister/brother, Jew, W.A.S.P., Christian, American, bastard, student, teacher, adult, child, working-class, middle-class, upper-class, high-ranking corporate executive or perhaps thin-wristed flight-attendant. The labels proliferate, biased of course, and hopelessly misleading and inaccurate. Whatever the distinction, classification or stereo-type, we move through it, eluding an accurate portrait. Of course, the term growth implies progress but let’s not forget ourselves, this is not always the case. Nonetheless, we are propelled into life and the immediate question arises: What do we do with this… this… meaningful process, fragile balance, gift from God, random circumstance, or (perhaps the most disconcerting possibility of all) null set? How are we to spend it? Endure it? Relish it? Pacify it? Succumb to it, our eyes wide with a look of bewilderment on our flushed faces?

How, reader? When you walk down a street on the hard, stained cement, do your bones glide in stride — a testament to “human grace” — or do they start and stop, uncomfortable with the sinews stretched and sewn in place, awkwardly mastering the instinctual yet all the more exhausting posture that you have inherited? Don’t get me wrong. As I let a draught of refreshing water pass over my thirst, I sense, I feel, I know those poetic steps. But for how long?

Decisions, choices, compromises, sacrifices, seem inevitable. Or should we defiantly throw up our arms and declare the pointlessness of it all? End of story. Of course, that is a choice in itself. The illusory seduction of immortality lies in its promise of the elimination of such concerns. Given life eternal, one turns every stone possible, and then another. Life without end — what an equally enthralling, impossible, and horrific concept.

Well, I’ve managed to back myself into an awkward corner. Trials lie ahead. I sense them gathering. Yet, there is no way of knowing to what degree they will matter, to know what consequences will surely follow. Many, many words later where do we find ourselves? Any better off? No less confused surely. Yet, in some innate way, I’ll feel more prepared facing the next turn knowing that you have read these words, these translated, bumpy thoughts. As fleeting, temporary and fuzzy as these utterances have been, they remain still.