These movies identify the filmmaker as a student of behavior. But the repetitiveness also has a cumulative power. By the end of each film, you’re overwhelmed by the humanity you’ve witnessed; all those individual interactions, coming one after the other, suggest a world of breadth and density. The word that always comes to mind when I think of these documentaries is voracious: You get the sense that Kiarostami could spend his whole life in that principal’s office, or that intersection, or that classroom, just watching people be. And you might gladly stay there with him, sharing his fascination.
Even in these early works Kiarostami questions form, occasionally undercutting directorial authority and supposed objectivity with clever edits or random digressions that draw attention to the artificiality of his endeavors. But he never undercuts sincerity; rather, the structural and stylistic playfulness always ends up reasserting the dignity of his subjects.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the incredible run of narrative films the director made from the late 1980s through the 1990s. The most seismic of these was 1990’s Close-Up, based on a real-life case in which a poor, movie-obsessed hustler took advantage of a bourgeois Tehran family by pretending he was the celebrated Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami restaged the events of the case, with the real people — victims and perpetrator — playing themselves, and then intercut those scenes with what appears to be documentary footage of the man on trial. Except that the documentary footage itself would turn out to be staged: Kiarostami had scripted the defendant’s lines, as well as the family’s forgiveness; he’d even handled some of the questioning from off-camera. The endlessly fractured perspective complicates our ideas of reality and fiction, of celebrity and identity, of directorial distance and intervention. But unlike so much of what we call “self-conscious cinema,” Close-Up never denies us emotion: At the end, the con man meets the real Makhmalbaf and promptly bursts into tears — a discomfiting and deeply heartbreaking moment. All the frames collapse into one; postmodern need not mean post-human.
This is an interesting discussion of how the corporation has become a popular culture villain. But I think it’s a remarkably apolitical way that doesn’t really transfer over to distrust of corporations today. The article focuses primarily on science fiction, going back to Soylent Green, which I just watched for the first time last week and which fascinated me because I wondered if it was the first major film to focus on climate change. It is, in its own way, a really interesting look at environmental problems at a time when this was just coming to be a central part of American culture.
In any case, what strikes me is that as late as today, popular culture’s consistent creation of the villainous corporation seems to not affect people’s actual vision of corporations at all. That is certainly true in recent cultural portrayals of corporations in the present. When I saw The Big Short, I wanted to go burn some banks. But that film, as well-received and relatively widely-seen as it was, seemingly had no effect on most of the people who actually watched it, even though they personally may have been completely screwed by the housing bubble. I don’t remember much of anything when it came out about what an indictment of capitalism it was. There was perhaps a bit more of this with The Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps because any Scorsese film gets more cultural recognition and perhaps because he portrayed his characters in such a way that would make viewers either want to be them or loathe them with great passion. But even that film has hardly proven some cultural anti-capitalist touchstone.
So I guess the corporation is this bad guy in sci-fi culture, but I sure wish it has some connection to real life.
I don’t want to embed because I don’t want it to somehow be taken down, but you really should watch the 1983 film Born in Flames. Imagine a world 10 years after a Bernie Sanders-style socialist revolution. The Party is leading the nation but women are as oppressed as ever. So a collective of black lesbian feminists who run a radio station start organizing and agitating for a real revolution. White feminists are uncomfortable. But when the state cracks down after one of the black feminist leaders visits the Western Sahara revolutionary movement to procure guns for the new revolution, the white feminists slowly start converting to the broader cause. One of said white feminists is Kathryn Bigelow, long before Zero Dark Thirty. It’s made for nothing and sure, there are some problems with script and plot. On the other hand, it’s a pretty unique film.
More than a little to my surprise, it turns out Richard Brody wrote a piece in The New Yorker in February about the film:
New York has a black mayor named Zubrinsky, the U.S. has a socialist President named Metzger, but, just as official socialist broadcasting proves indistinguishable from the corporate kind, so socialist party politics prove as inflexible and hidebound as those of capitalist times, and, under Zella’s guidance, women seek to take direct, and violent, action to break with both.
Borden constructs this large-scale social drama like a collage, with faux newscasts and talk shows, fictionalized documentary footage, police-surveillance tapes and the officials’ commentary on them, protests and confrontations, organizational meetings and strategy sessions, behind-the-scenes looks at the broadcasters Isabel and Honey on the air, musical performance, and intimate glances at private life in a time of conflict. She proves herself to be a far more imaginative and farsighted screenwriter than many celebrated Hollywood figures, because she sees the plot from a wide range of perspectives and circumstances, including one that she palpably views with hostility. Borden’s very sense of what constitutes a story, and how to realize it in images and sounds, is as radical as the social politics that she asserts.
The raw tone of her filming is nonetheless canny and precise; blunt closeups in contrasty light have a rough sculptural solidity, and the confrontational simplicity of the images evokes a rare blend of anger and analysis, affirmation and questioning. Leftism, Borden asserts, isn’t enough; a political revolution, to have any deep effect, must be a revolution in ideas and attitudes, a cultural and an intimate revolution that itself involves the media and the arts—and of which “Born in Flames” itself is an example.
Yeah, I think there’s more than a few relevant points for present left politics in this film.
Tonight’s film is this 1967 “educational” thing, brought to you by the American Dairy Association, about fitness for teenage girls. Of course the primary reason they should be fit is to attract a man.
In other film news, Rudy is a piece of garbage.
I watched Aguirre: Wrath of God last night for the first time in 5 years or so. It was good to see Aguirre sum up my teaching philosophy.
I understand that after this, the monkeys learned not to refer to nonfiction books as “novels.”
Tonight’s film is a genuinely useful PSA from 1982 about women taking control over their own bodies. Plus the biggest douche in the film has Larry Bird hair.
Some advice from 1951. Certainly I could use it.
I watched Pickup on South Street earlier this week. It was great, but equally good was the bonus material that included Sam Fuller talking about how he got such an overtly unpatriotic film with no sympathetic characters made, which was himself and Darryl Zanuck going to J. Edgar Hoover, listening to his objections, and then Fuller pointing out that they both knew the same corrupt cops and the like who had done the very things Fuller shows in the film.
Finally, I saw Lady Snowblood for the first time last night. So. Incredibly. Awesome. Lots of spurting blood with geyser sound effects combined with beautiful cinematography is my kind of thing.
On March 15, 1940, John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was released to universal acclaim. This was perhaps the greatest moment of the cultural left during the Great Depression. Of all the New Deal-era art that broadly made up the Popular Front, none were more well-remembered and beloved than the book and film versions of The Grapes of Wrath, despite and possibly because neither Ford nor Steinbeck was closely associated with that movement.
Steinbeck’s powerful 1939 novel was a sensation. Its tale of the Joads and their bitter journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work and a new life was a huge hit. Produced at the tail end of the worst economic crisis in American history, it galvanized attention on the plight of the so-called Okies, even if it didn’t lead to any policy to alleviate their problems, despite the fact that the book and the film both played up the Resettlement Administration camp that treated people decently, with the film even going into a closeup on the RA logo. The plight of white migrants to California had received a good bit of attention from artists, most notably in the photographs of Dorothea Lange. These migrants, more victims of New Deal farm policy that encouraged consolidation and industrial farming than the Dust Bowl, as most, including the fictional Joads, originated well east of the Dust Bowl, were part of the national crisis of the Great Depression, which led to a lot of hand-wringing, no shortage of fear, and a belated and relatively small government response to provide relief for these small farmers. The Grapes of Wrath focused national attention on their plight, especially with the release of the film.
John Ford was a brilliant choice to direct the film adaptation. Although today best known for his often racist westerns, he was more of a broad believer in a salt of the earth white populism that simply assumed a Turnerian view of history (which was almost ubiquitous during the New Deal among intellectuals, politicians, and artists. That is on full display in the film. The original New York Times review well-summarizes the popular reception to it:
We know the question you are asking, have been asking since the book was acquired for filming: Does the picture follow the novel, how closely and how well? The answer is that it has followed the book; has followed it closely, but not with blind, undiscriminating literalness; has followed it so well that no one who has read and admired it should complain of the manner of its screen telling. Steinbeck’s language, which some found too shocking for tender eyes, has been cleaned up, but has not been toned so high as to make its people sound other than as they are. Some phases of his saga have been skimped and some omitted; the book’s ending has been dropped; the sequence of events and of speeches has been subtly altered.
The changes sound more serious than they are, seem more radical than they are. For none of them has blurred the clarity of Steinbeck’s word-picture of the people of the Dust Bowl. None of them has rephrased, in softer terms, his matchless description of the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California to find the promised land where work was plenty, wages were high and folk could live in little white houses beside an orange grove. None of them has blunted the fine indignation or diluted the bitterness of his indictment of the cruel deception by which an empty stew-pot was substituted for the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. And none of them has—as most of us feared it might—sent the film off on a witch hunt, let it pretend there had just been a misunderstanding, made it end on the sunrise of a new and brighter day.
Steinbeck’s story might have been exaggeration; at least some will take comfort in thinking so. But if only half of it were true, that half still should constitute a tragedy of modern America, a bitter chapter of national history that has not yet been closed, that has, as yet, no happy ending, that has thus far produced but two good things: a great American novel (if it is truly a novel) and a great American motion picture.
Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was classic casting. With his flat Midwestern accent and good looks, he personified the prototype of the All-American young man, an image he would build upon for his entire career (and of course play against type in Once Upon a Time in the West, nearly 30 years later). His ideological transformation from rough and tumble Oklahoma white to organizer and lefty is a story of what happens to people when they are beaten down enough. Sure, grandpa dies, the brother-in-law runs away, and the family falls apart. Preacher Casey gets murdered by the farm owner thugs. But the struggle continues. Ma keeps the rest of the family together (and Jane Darwell was brilliant in this role) and Tom builds on Casey’s legacy, not as an ideological radical but as a man seeking answers to the poverty of his life.
Steinbeck himself was thrilled with the film version, writing “No punches were pulled. In fact….it is a harsher thing than the book.” And as great as the book is, the film is better as it distills the key points with great power while rewriting the book’s dark and somewhat gratuitous ending to provide some sort of hope at the end, as opposed to the flood and endless despair of the last section of the book.
The film and the book both make one huge and regrettable error, which is erasing non-white labor from the land. California was not this agricultural paradise where everyone could eat all the oranges they wanted. Those farmers had always sought cheap, exploitable labor, whether Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, or Okie. It was to serve these farmers that Mexico was exempt from the 1924 Immigration Act. They recruited labor from the Philippines after Japanese migration ended. Those immigrants would play a key role in the history of farmworker organizing. The Bracero Program would be a solution for the disappearance of white labor from the fields during World War II. But neither Steinbeck nor Ford had any interest in these non-whites at all and their stories and histories are a very conspicuous absence.
In the past, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Tom Joad in the future. I still say that had he not been thrown in jail for life by the cops or killed as an organizer, he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964.
This is the 173rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Twenty years ago, the wonderful director Krzysztof Kieślowski died. His most famous work is the Blue, White, Red trilogy made in France. Those are great films, but his best work is the 10-part Decalogue, made for Polish television in the 1980s. Shot in a single apartment complex in Warsaw with each film inspired by one of the Ten Commandments, Kieślowski provided a brilliant look at late-communist Poland and the everyday lives of its residents, with crises ranging from whether to have an abortion to peeping toms to fathers who believe they have mastered frozen ponds but have not. Piotr Florczyk has an excellent essay on the series, using it as his launching point for visiting the apartment complex where it was filmed and musing on what has changed in Poland and what has not.
If you haven’t seen Decalogue, do so.
I haven’t seen Hail, Caesar! yet, but I look forward to it. So naturally it is time to rethink the Coen Brothers work. Bilge Ebiri ranks their films. I love his writing, but I can’t agree with this ranking. So I’m trying my own.
1. The Big Lebowski–I know it’s not their most sophisticated film, but it might be the funniest movie of my lifetime. It’s basically a perfect film.
2. Fargo. Also a near perfect film.
3. No County for Old Men. Really the only decent adaptation of anything Cormac McCarthy has written. Partly that’s because it was a cinematic book to begin with, but partly it’s certainly the excellent scrip, casting, and direction.
4. Miller’s Crossing. I really love this film. I love the language, the ethnic politics, and Albert Finney blowing away his assassins to “Danny Boy.”
5. Raising Arizona. I never loved this as much as other people, but obviously it’s a good film.
6. Blood Simple. Not my very favorite, but obviously a very fine first film.
7. A Serious Man. This is a pretty underrated film. It feels minor at first, but it’s a pretty profound meditation. Great ending too.
8 True Grit. Just a very solid film. The original made a better choice in not including the ending of the book, but that’s a minor mistake by the Coens. Plus who can dislike Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn?
9. O Brother Where Art Thou. It’s not truly great but I like almost everything about it, including of course the great soundtrack.
10. Intolerable Cruelty. This is also an underrated film. It’s slapstick and silly, but in a very good way.
11. Barton Fink. I know some people love this film. I do not. It is a completely decent work. But I do not love it.
12. Inside Llewyn Davis. A fairly disappointing film, outside of the cat.
13. The Hudsucker Proxy. Meh. I like the Coen Brothers silly side, but I just didn’t feel this worked that well.
14. Burn After Reading. God, this was disappointing. So much potential. Utterly forgettable.
15. The Man Who Wasn’t There. Sometimes people really defend this film, including Ebiri. I don’t get it. I thought it was just nothingness. I was bored throughout.
16. The Ladykillers. Ugh.
Kara Brown is damned tired of slavery movies. I am not, but I get that every other high-profile Oscar-nominated film about black lives is an exercise in filming black bodily trauma.
The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s Sundance darling period piece about the deadliest slave insurrection in American history, was purchased by Fox Searchlight on early Tuesday morning for $17.5 million. It was the largest deal in Sundance history, and coverage immediately suggested that The Birth of a Nation will function as some way through which the Academy can make up for this year’s diversity debacle.
Nat Turner’s Rebellion is a fascinating story, an important one, and an under-examined one. Nate Parker struggled for years to get the project made, and I have no doubt that—as with almost any film rooted in a black experience or with a mostly black cast—it was a frequently frustrating fight. I will certainly be buying a ticket to see The Birth of a Nation when it comes to theaters. But part of me is torn about sitting through yet another film that centers around the brutalization of black people.
Frankly, I’m tired of slavery movies.
It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype. Their love of the slave movie genre brings this issue out in the worst way. I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient.
Of the six films actually produced by black people that have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, three are about slavery or slavery-adjacent violence against black people (The Color Purple, Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave). The fourth is Selma and the fifth is Precious, two movies that focus on black women being emotionally and physically beaten down in almost every way possible. The last is the The Blind Side, where a white woman who butts in and makes a black kid who was already a promising athlete into an even better athlete.
From a simple visual perspective, I’m tired of being told that I have to watch black actors in physical pain and endure mental abuse for two hours in order to be worthy of a distinction. I don’t want to watch a black body being lashed open so white people can finally “get it.” I’m tired of black actors not only having to live through the trauma of acting in those films, but for also having few other options in front of them.
I am very excited for The Birth of a Nation, and I love how it steals the name back from D.W. Griffith. But I do get this. However, in the trajectory of Hollywood, there have hardly been any serious discussions of slavery at all. 12 Years a Slave was the first since The Color Purple. What else is there? Amistad is ridiculous and really about white people anyway. Django Unchained is a cartoon. Beloved wasn’t very good. Glory is sort of about slavery, but is really a Civil War film that doesn’t explore slavery itself all that deeply. And then???? That’s through a century of film. We need a lot more slavery films precisely because American politics and the rise of overt racism once again is seeking to erase black voices from politics and black history from relevance to the present. Thus says Mychal Denzel Smith in his response:
And while I understand, I disagree. I want more films about slavery. I want a Marvel Universe of films about slavery. I want so many films about slavery that white actors start to complain that the only roles they’re being offered are those of slave owners.
I want more films about slavery because America would rather forget. We would rather pretend we know all there is to know about slavery and move on. We would rather act like we understand because we know it happened and that’s enough. But we don’t have any understanding of the economics of slavery, of how the racial caste system was built, of who was complicit in its maintenance, of how it defined our politics, of how it ended. The films about slavery that we have now barely scratch the surface on any of these issues. We basically just think it was a mean thing to do to people. Can a slate of slavery films completely solve this problem? Absolutely not. It would be foolish to think so. But as slavery gets pushed further and further out of our cultural memory by politicians and pundits who dismiss the institution as ancient history not worth discussing (while that history continues to be distorted), then a new cultural memory needs to come into place. I believe film is a place to build it.
Of course, let’s have black people making all kinds of movies. Let’s see black people in all kinds of roles, in front of and behind the camera, in pre- and post-production, in publicity and marketing, at award shows. I’m down for all of that. But films about slavery—lots and lots of films about slavery—should also find their place.
As a historian, this is I think a more useful response. Slavery needs to be driven home again and again to white Americans. They need to be confronted with it constantly. Right not, it’s far too easy to forget it happened, deny white privilege exists, and claim that only whites suffer real racism because something. That has to stop. A major strategy on how to do this is through cultural productions, including film, television, comic books, whatever.
For that matter, where’s the TV shows that center slavery? Or black history at all?
I really enjoyed this Angelica Jade Bastién essay on the problems with colorblind casting in Hollywood. Using Oscar Isaac as an example, she explores how he has been able to work without his ethnicity defining his roles, but also how he had to not use his given last name of Hernandez in order to do this. I didn’t even know Issac was Latino. I thought he was Jewish, not that he can’t be both. The real issue of colorblind casting in Hollwyood, Bastién argues, is that it serves to reflect the world white liberals wish existed–one where race doesn’t exist–as opposed to actually dealing with the enormous racial inequality in the film industry, where only tiny numbers of people of color rise to be directors, producers, lead actors, etc.
But his success hasn’t come without compromises. Isaac is open about the choices he’s made in his career including dropping his last name, Hernández. “Starting out as an actor, you immediately worry about being pigeonholed or typecast,” he said to the magazine In. “I don’t want to just go up for the dead body, the gangster, the bandolero, whatever. I don’t want to be defined by someone else’s idea of what an Oscar Hernández should be playing.” His tendency to play characters of different backgrounds extends to his new Star Wars character, whom Isaac has described as “non-ethnic.” Notably, he didn’t say “white” or “racially ambiguous,” instead referring to his character’s absence of ethnicity.
Which fits in neatly with the idea that colorblind casting is the easiest and most visible way to address the need for diversity within Hollywood. Indeed, the practice has led to great, high-profile performances including Morgan Freeman’s Red in The Shawshank Redemption, the majority of Will Smith’s career from the mid-1990s onward, Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the kitschy 1960s Batman television series, and most recently, Laverne Cox taking on the role of Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. On a more political level, colorblind casting exists as a hopeful emblem for how many wish the world to be: post-racial. The powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who’s been extensively praised for her use of colorblind casting, has said that she doesn’t write with race in mind. In the early days of Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes explained her reasoning by saying, “My friends and I don’t sit around and discuss race … We’re post-civil rights, post-feminist babies, and we take it for granted we live in a diverse world.” And yet, with minorities making up a small fraction of directors and other key behind-the-scenes roles, it’s hard to know how seriously the industry cares about improving representation in general.
In the face of Hollywood’s deeply entrenched racism, colorblind casting seems like a solution with broad appeal and an actual history of producing great performances. But its downsides go beyond the fact that white actors can end up taking roles for non-white characters, as in Aloha and Pan, or that productions can slot minority actors into secondary roles and get praised for “diversity.” It’s simply counterintuitive to argue that problems related to race can be fixed by ignoring race altogether. In practice, colorblind casting isn’t a form of acceptance or progress: It can just as easily be erasure wrapped up as benevolence.
This pretty well sums up how a lot of white liberals want to think about race. Post-racial just sounds so nice, doesn’t it. Then we can all just get along and not have to think about those hard questions of structural inequality. Of course this reflects the ways a lot of liberals were talking about America generally for a few months at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, before a massive white backlash to President Obama reminded them that race is the most important category of analysis in nearly ever issue in this country.
Colorblind casting also makes no sense in reflecting a society that is profoundly racial. That’s why I was never comfortable with the scripts of either The Shawshank Redemption or Unforgiven. Morgan Freeman’s character in both of those movies would have had to exist in a world where race is a profound factor, yet it is not addressed in either. Gene Hackman whips Freeman to death in Unforgiven, yet race is never mentioned, except that his character has married an indigenous woman!
Colorblind fantasies contribute to the problem of racial inequality more than reflect progressive values amongst those who hold them. That certainly includes Hollywood, where the “race film,” now in a politically liberal form, still often provides people of color the only large-scale casting opportunities they have.
In 1948, the National Farm Labor Union and Hollywood filmmakers who hated the virulently anti-union big farm grower DiGiorgio Fruit, the largest grape, plum, and pear grower in the world, made a film titled Poverty in the Valley of Plenty to expose the terrible conditions of the farmers. In 1947, DiGiorgio responded to a strike by firing all the strikers and replacing them with a combination of Filipinos, undocumented workers, and migrants coming to the U.S. through the Bracero Program. The last of these was an illegal move for the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico explicitly stated that braceros were not to be used as strikebreakers. The unions hated DiGiorgio so much that they waived all their wage and hour contracts to get the film made.
Here it is.
It’s an interesting document. I know the print is not very clear at all and that’s too bad. It’s notable that the workers here are all portrayed as white, given that there were already a lot of Mexican-Americans and Filipinos working these farms and that Ernesto Gallarza, one of the founders of farmworker organizing, was one of the NFLU leaders. Perhaps this was done for the rhetorical argument of claiming these were real Americans. That seems more likely given the unfortunate emphasis on the evils of illegal immigration as the real villain here. It’s not so much that the immigrants are being blamed as they are pawns of an evil corporation, but there’s certainly no sympathy for the immigrants either. That’s unfortunate but not at all surprising for 1948.
DiGiorgio responded by suing the NFLU for libel and going to court to end all screenings of the film. In 1950, the company won. The NFLU was destroyed and the union agreed to destroy all copies of the film, although as we see here, at least one survived.