Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and Saving Face (2004): Queerness across Indian and Chinese American Diasporas in New York City in the Early-to-Mid-00s

NOTE: This essay was submitted as university coursework toward Coventry University’s BA (Hons) programme of Media and Communications on 28th March 2017, to which I was recently awarded a 2:1. This version incorporates material excised from the final submitted version.

Abstract 

In this essay, I explore queerness within diasporas in the Indian film Kal Ho Naa Ho (Advani 2003), and the American film Saving Face (Wu 2004). I discuss how they situate their narratives within New York City as a shared cultural space, drawing in part upon research into Chinese and Indian communities within New York City and the United States (Bhattacharya 2008, Strug and Mason 2007, Li and Skop 2010).

Introduction 

Approaching minority and global cinemas, both in production and release, is difficult. How we understand international films is important, as they are often taken as “ethnographic documents” as representative of other cultures (Desnai 2004 cited in Ezra and Rowden 2006:2). Bollywood, producing an average of 400 films a year to weekly domestic audiences of 35 million (Nayar 1997:73), has expanded towards diasporas, partly through deregulation an exemption on tax exports and a greater investment in film finance, seeing an international “mainstreaming of Bollywood” (Thussu 2008:104), utilising a new, global aesthetic (Prasad 2008 cited in O’Neill 2013:256). Kal Ho Na Ho (Advani 2003), focusing on the Indian diaspora in New York City, was the first mainstream Indian film set entirely in the United States, opened in 52 theaters and grossed $1.78 million, one of the highest Bollywood box offices in the US between 1999 and 2005 (Thussu 2008:108).

However, the reach for Bollywood cinema outside of the diaspora is questionable, often ridiculed by Western spectators for “plot twists, unpredictable deviations and deus-ex machina endings” (Nayar 1997:73) that draw attention to its artificiality (Mishra 2002). Within film criticism, focus shifts towards directors within “Third Cinema” like Satyajit Ray, more closely aligned with neorealist movements (Thussu 2008:98). Filmmakers bridging Western and Indian film compromise their intentions, instead largely catering towards Western audiences (Thussu 2008:106), with the release of Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle 2008) met with nationalist concerns over representing India as a “Third World” (O’Neill 2013:255).

Asian American representation remains a battleground, presented in deeply problematic, Otherized and Oriental roles, often read as “premodern” and “irrevocably opposed to the West” (Rajgopal 2010:141). Rarely does an Asian protagonist have a sense of humanity (Rajgopal 2010:150). Yellowface practices extended beyond Luise Rainer and Katherine Hepburn’s portrayals of Asian woman in the 1930s and 40s (Rajgopal 2010:147) that emerged in part from miscegenation laws, through to modern online debates around the appropriation of an “essentialized” Asia and “whitewashing” in The Last Airbender (Shyamalan 2010) (Lopez 2011:435). Asian American filmmaking emerged out of grassroots student movements in the 1960s and 1970s (Okado 2016:1), but is defined today by “the legacy of enduring Orientalist stereotypes” within action films by Jet Li, Beat Takeshi and Jackie Chan (Mimura 2009:xiv). As Joan Chen commented in an interview surrounding the release of the film, the mainstream now “welcomes” other exotic elements, within martial arts and kung fu films (Canavese 2005).

Produced on a budget of $2.5 million, Saving Face (Wu 2004), Wu’s only feature, became marginalised through all stages of production: initially considered as a direct-to-video release (Leibowitz 2005), it received an R rating in the US and 15 rating in the UK. Distributed under the Sony Pictures Classics subsidiary, this label acts as “a euphemism for a small-studio production” that only offers “mirror images of what the studio does” (Tzioumakis 2006:264). For women within the industry, they are often relegated to an “Otherised” position or presented as “erotic spectacle”, and need to be utilised as new social subjects to tell female narratives outside “patriarchal hegemony” (McDonald 2016).

I use these films as a counter-reading to discuss queer representation and ideology; my reading of the heteronormativity and homophobic attitudes of Kal Ho Naa Ho is not necessarily as the director intended. As Higson argues, audience interpretation of international films depends largely upon their “cultural context”. (Higson 2008:19) Similarly, in analysing Saving Face, this reading goes beyond simple notions of “world cinema”. As Nagib argues, “world cinema is simply the cinema of the world. It has no centre.” (Nagib 2006:35 cited in Dudrah 2012:114) Instead, we should understand diaspora cinema as having no fixed or bounded notion of nation (Dennison and Lim 2006 cited in Dudrah 2012:114).

Challenging heterosexuality: queerness within liminal space

Central to the narratives of Kal Ho Naa Ho and Saving Face are questions of racial and sexual identity. As Hall argues, there is no stable core of self, but one produced within the “discursive formations” of the “modalities of power” that is constituted within representation (Hall 1996), and is an “ongoing” project, creating “open dialogue” between the subject and the external world (Hall 1992 cited in Dudrah 2013).

However, both Indian and Chinese cinema explore identity within the constraints of censorship. All Indian films keep to strict guidelines imposed by the Central Board of Film Classification, with the Supreme Court stating that film “is able to “instil or cultivate violent or bad behaviour.” (Jaggi and Thirumurthy 2015) Censorship acts as a “nationalist discourse” to exclude “oppositional discourses” (Bose 2009 cited in Jaggi and Thirumurthy 2015), and, in turn, many directors self-impose censorship. Within Mainland China, homosexuality is institutionally marginalised, with no literary or theoretical publications allowed in official distribution channels and films censored, not discussed within the public sphere (Liang 2012:130). Films with queer themes are unable to receive funds from the state, largely shown underground through unofficial gatherings and film festivals (Liang 2012:135). Though Kal Ho Naa Ho appeals across the diaspora, Saving Face is unable to reach Chinese audiences. Beyond queer sexuality, Bollywood restricts all sexuality, discouraging elements as mild as kissing (Nayar 1997:88), whilst denying the female body, marked as a sexual body, with nudity and sexuality often banned by censors. Instead, women are presented either as victims of sexual harassment or upholding moral principles (Mehta 2001 cited in Jaggi and Thirumurthy 2015), with nudity and sexuality often banned and a “hierarchical coding” against western cultural behaviour of sexuality and relationships (Jaggi and Thirumurthy 2015).

Kal Ho Naa Ho’s sexuality exists below surface, using innuendo as a “substitute for the unpermitted sexual display” (Nayar 1997:88). Our protagonists spend a night out at Club Nirvana, as we see female bodies on display. Jazz tries to use her sexuality to her advantage at her restaurant, attracting a group of white blue-collar truck drivers, symbols of masculine America, and pouring her coffee in a suggestive way.  But this quickly shifts towards her disadvantage as she is forced to remove the patrons.

Male homosexuality is established through implication and innuendo with Rohit and Aman, embodying a ‘buddy’ or dosti role of “barely disguised same-sex desire” (Gopinath 2000) with greater intensity and devotion than Western understandings of friendship (Holtzman 2010:111), between homosociality and homosexuality.] (Sedgwick cited in Holtzman 2010:113). Neither character is explicitly queer, yet homosexuality is framed as a disjuncture to heterosexuality. Rohit is established as aggressively heterosexual, harassing a woman in an elevator before being confronted by a black security guard. However, the woman defends his actions.

Rohit is also often presented desexualised, although not necessarily asexual; in one scene, he speaks longingly of spending all day in bed with Laila; the frame cuts, suggestively, to him wrapped up in bed with his dog. Later, in a case of mistaken identity during a blind date, Rohit rejects a woman who seeks to initiate sexual contact, moving over to the bathroom as he suffers anxiety around his sexuality. Later, when Rohit wakes up in bed after a night out with Aman, their contact is non-intimate. In order to be represented as queer, Rohit must first lose his sexuality.

These tropes bear an uneasy resemblance to the early Hollywood trope of “the sissy” as mentioned in The Celluloid Closet, reinforcing masculinity and femininity whilst lacking a sexuality of their own. As screenwriter Arthur Laurents reflects, “they were disgusting […] I never understood why people laughed.” (Epstein and Friedman 1995)

These implied relationships suggest an “idealized state” for gay viewership (Prasad 1988 cited in Bhugra, Kalra, and Ventriglio 2015), achieving an “iconic status” amongst gay and lesbian subcultures. (Ghosh 2002:209) Whereas within its native context these elements are “nontransgressive”, they acquire “subversive value”, reclaimed through a “queer lens” (Gopinath 2000).

Unlike Western buddy films, it does not seek to “deflect queerness through comic acknowledgement and disavowal of homoeroticism by the main characters” (Holtzman 2010:113); instead, by disavowing their intimacy to his servant Kantaben, who reads their relationship as queer, it is amplified through “slapstick encounters” simulating oral and anal sex, becoming more acceptable to the viewer than heterosexual intimacy. (Holtzman 2010:115) In their typification of gay stereotypes in Bollywood cinema, Bhugra, Kalra and Ventriglio refer to this trope as “the laughing stock”, where queerness is used as comic relief to titillate the audience (Bhugra, Kalra and Ventriglio 2015). Kantaben’s exaggerated reaction to the mere implication of homosexuality gives a visual image of “visceral homophobia” (Holtzman 2010:123), spilling a tray of orange juice; fainting; screaming. Largely silent, she is denied a voice in which to vocalise her objections.

Although Holtzman argues that the love triangle between Rohit, Aman and Naida creates a “sublimated desire for one another displayed onto the female body” (Holtzman 2010:114), these theatrical character types become increasingly problematic, orienting the viewer towards a heterosexual discourse. Their conflict must be resolved through Aman’s death to allow “normative monogamous heterosexuality to thrive”. (Holtzman 2010:112)

Heterosexuality forms as a “renunciation of the possibility of homosexuality” (Butler 1997, cited in Ahmed 2006:85), creating a “field of heterosexual objects” that indicate “values, capital, aspirations, projects and styles”. (Ahmed 2006:85) In a series of vox pops, an imaginary narrator asks a handful of characters what love means and reflecting on first loves: amongst the subjects, Naina’s younger brother, and Rohit’s dog, Laila. In an early scene, Kammo, Vimmo and Lago pray towards Saraswati to earn the romantic affection of their neighbour. The film’s abundance of heterosexuality becomes almost farcical. Sexuality becomes universal amongst age, race and religion – except gender.

In Saving Face, queer sexuality exists both in opposition and accepted within Chinese American society. Wil’s lesbian identity is “incidental” to the film’s dominant plotline (Metzger 2009:225). The film follows a “mutual exploration” of “illicit” inter-generational sexuality and lesbianism, through Ma’s identity as a pregnant divorced woman. (Wong 2012:315) Both Ma and Wil exist within reverse roles that create a “queer temporality” (Freeman cited in Metzger 2009:232) and an “asynchronous configuration of time”, facilitating a rethinking of the normative (Metzger 2009:232): Ma experiences a “belated adolescence” of blind dates as Wil fields her suitors with idle conversation.

As reviewer Elbert Ventura emphasises, Wil’s relationship with Vivian is immediately politicised, as “the offhanded depiction of a genuinely sexy lesbian love affair between two Asian-Americans seems a defiant statement against the neutering of minorities on American screens” (Mitsuda and Ventura 2005), whilst avoiding the (cisgender, heterosexual male) psychosexuality of mainstream lesbian desire bracketing the “first decade of the twenty-first century” within Mulholland Drive (Lynch 2001) and Black Swan (Aronofsky 2010) (Bradbury-Rance 2015). In the audio commentary, Wu defends the sex scene, making clear it would be “disingenuous” to present lesbian sexuality as “shameful” (Wu 2004).

Wil inhabits a “queer diaspora” and “hybrid identity” (Hall cited in Wong 2012:315), rendered invisible through questions of race, colonialism, migration and globalization. As Ahmed writes on intersectionality, “I am not a lesbian one moment and a person of color the next and a feminist at another. I am all of these at every moment.” (Ahmed 2017:230) Wil’s identity becomes liminal, eluding the “network of classifications” and the “positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial”, creating a space of encounter and conflict. (Turner 1969) Wil’s physical appearance immediately contests cultural values, wearing a v-neck and dark pants that recall the ‘new woman’ of the Cultural Revolution. (Metzger 2009:232) Like Chiron in Moonlight (Jenkins 2016), Wil must seek to resolve identity contradictions where no identity can be more dominant than the other.

Ma and Wil shift from being Otherised by the community to finding a newly restored embrace by the community; in a sense, Ma’s atypical, socially shunned relationship is ‘queer’, disrupting the multiple boundaries of mythic and essentialised understanding of the ‘homeland’, patriarch and monogamy. (Wong 2012:315)

New York City as identity space

New York City acts a space of a “diasporic homeland”, with a high number of Chinese (1.6 million) and Indian migrants (1.6 million) (Li and Skop 2010). More than a city, New York City becomes a symbol. Kal Ho Naa Ho, presenting New York to international diasporas, relies heavily upon symbolic imagery. Kal Ho Naa Ho’s New York, from its opening aerial shot of the “business capital of the world”, is contained by Times Square, the Empire State Building, street vendors, Starbucks cups, American flags, Pretty Woman, Gap t-shirts and multi-ethnic basketball played upon suburban streets. This representation of New York contains a version of the diaspora as a desired space of wealth and luxury (Mishra 2002), but as assimilated and integrated.

Though the Bollywood of 1950s independent India presented Western materialism as a “foe” corrupting morally upright Indians through the promiscuity of modern city life, Western popular culture and ideals have become increasingly subsumed into Indian life, with images of ‘Vamps’ fading in favour of “(Utopian) cosmopolitan India.” (Nayar 1997:77) Queerness becomes presented as Western ideology. Rather than appeal to domestic audiences, Kal Ho Naa Ho is “calculated to appeal to NRI [non-resident Indian] audiences”, invoking the hipness of queerness within the Western diaspora (Holtzman 2010:122), which in turn reinforces the right-wing “nativist idea” that “homosexuality is catalysed by time spent in the licentious West”. (Holtman 2010:124) Homosexuality becomes Otherised, as acceptable to white Westerners and South Asians, but unacceptable within Indian communities. (Holtman 2010:123)

Rohit’s father’s confrontation with Rohit in a strip club, attempting to reinforce his heteronormativity following his friendship with Aman, follows this idea. Rohit’s father says:

This is America. Everything is possible. Oh, the horror. I asked for a daughter-in-law. Instead, I’m blessed with a son-in-law.

In Saving Face, much of its action takes place in Flushing, Queens, a multicultural borough that still has a greater Chinese-American residency than either Chinatown in Manhattan or Brooklyn, presented as a “Chinese enclave” (Metzger 2009:228); Chinatowns have seen increasingly substandard living through new movement towards suburban areas (Li and Skop 2010:303) and the impact of 9/11 (Strug and Mason 2007:26).

Wil’s apartment in Park Slope, an area in Brooklyn that carries “spatial attachment” to the lesbian community but is at risk of gentrification (Giesking 2016:267), also acts as the space of conflict central to Shirin’s Persian and bisexual identity in Appropriate Behaviour (Akhavan 2014). Where districts like Christopher Street in Greenwich Village cater towards the “economic strength” of gay men (Giesking 2016:264), lesbians are often subject to both homophobia within queer spaces, and a sense of recreating territories and borders within heteronormative spaces (Giesking 2016:267). Rather than an “assimilation” of dominant national and local culture, there is a “convergence.” (Li and Skop 2010:303)

Wil’s sexuality with Vivian create an act of defiance within a temporal space (the dance hall) encoded as heterosexual as they dare each other to kiss, creating an “eruptive erotic possibility that might challenge the assertion of norms.” (Metzger 2009:232) As their sexuality is revealed, Wu tries to show a “spectrum” of reactions (Legel 2005), from implicit approval, ambivalence to disapproval, to yells of “revolting!” In the final (pre-credits) shot, Wil and Vivian become miniature, subsumed by the crowd as the camera pans above them, distinct yet accepted within the larger crowd.

Conclusion 

Both films work within their genre: Kal Ho Naa Ho, as a globalised Bollywood musical appealing to diasporic communities, is not a film about displacement and discrimination by white America (O’Neill 2013:260), or the intensified post-9/11 hostility where many Indians feel a need to disassociate with their community (Bhattacharya 2008). Saving Face, as a queer “melodrama” about the “reconstitution of family” (Metzger 2009), or, as Wu describes in the audio commentary, an “old fashioned, screwball romantic comedy” (Wu 2004), is “not trying to push the boundaries; I’m just trying to tell a good story.” (Legel 2005) But entertainment, whether innovative or deploying “sentimental sitcom conventions” (Holden 2005), carry impacts. Though representation should not always be the central discourse of film theory, both films implicate political questions around tradition, assimilation, the diaspora and sexual identity, whether intentional or not. 

References

  • Advani, N. (2003) Kal Ho Naa Ho
  • Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer Phenemonology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press
  • Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press
  • Akhavan, D. (2014) Appropriate Behaviour
  • Bhattacharya, G. (2008) ‘The Indian Diaspora in Transnational Context:
  • Social Relations and Cultural Identities of Immigrants to New York City’. Journal of Intercultural Studies 29 (1), 65-80, DOI: 10.1080/07256860701759949
  • Bhugra, D., Kalra, G. and Ventriglio, A. (2015) ‘Portrayal of gay characters in Bollywood cinema’. International Review of Psychiatry 27 (5), 455–459
  • Bradbury-Rance, C. (2015) ‘Desire, Outcast: Locating Queer Adolescence’ in International Cinema and the Girl, ed. by Handyside, F. and Taylor-Jones, K. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 85-95
  • Canavese, P. (2005) Joan Chen—Saving Face—03/11/05. [3 November] available from <http://www.grouchoreviews.com/interviews/74&gt; [27 March 2017]
  • Dudrah, R. (2012) ‘Beyond World Cinema? The Dialectics of Black British Diasporic Cinema’ in Theorizing World Cinema. ed. by Nagib, L, Perriam, C. and Dudrah, R. K. London: I.B. Tauris, 113-128
  • Dudrah, R. (2013) ‘Reading The Stuart Hall Project’. Journal of British Cinema and Television 12 (3), 383-401, DOI: 10.3366/jbctv.2015.0271
  • Epstein, R & Friedman, J. (1995) The Celluloid Closet. [DVD] United Kingdom: Drakes Avenue Pictures Ltd.
  • Ezra, E. and Rowden, T. (2006) Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader. Abington: Routledge
  • Giesking, J. J. (2016) ‘Crossing over into neighbourhoods of the body: urban territories, borders and lesbian-queer bodies in New York City’. Area 48 (3), 262–270, DOI: 10.1111/area.12147
  • Gopinath, G. (2000) ‘Queering Bollywood: Alternative Sexualities in Popular Indian Cinema’. Journal of Homosexuality 39 (3-4), 283-297. DOI: 10.1300/J082v39n03_13
  • Ghosh, S. (2002) ‘Queer Pleasures for Queer People: Film, Television, and Queer Sexuality in India’ in Queering India: Same Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. ed. by Vanita, R. New York: Routledge, 209-221
  • Hall, S. (1996) ‘Who Needs Identity’ in Questions of Cultural Identity. ed. Hall, S. and Du Gay, P. London: Sage
  • Higson, A. (2006) ‘The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema’ in Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader. ed. by Ezra, E. and Rowden, T. Abington: Routledge
  • Holden, S. (2005) ‘Juggling Her Chinese Clan, Gay Lover, Pregnant Mom’. The New York Times [online] 27 May. available from < http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/27/movies/juggling-her-chinese-clan-gay-lover-pregnant-mom.html&gt; [27 March 2017]
  • Holtzman, D. (2010) ‘Between Yaars: The Queering of Dosti in Contemporary Bollywood Films’ in Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema. ed. by Bhattacharya, R., Rajeshwari, M. and Pandharipande, V. London: Anthem Press, 111-128
  • Jenkins, B. (2016) Moonlight
  • Jaggi, R. and Thirumurthy, P. (2015) ‘Cut, Clip And Appropriate – A Critical Analysis of Suppression of Alternative Discourse in Indian Cinema through Censorship’. Amity Journal of Media & Communication Studies 4 (1-2), 5-20
  • Legel, L. (2005) ‘INTERVIEW: Alice Wu Talks ‘Saving Face’. Comingsoon.net [online] 11 June. available from <http://www.comingsoon.net/movies/news/505621-interview_alice_wu_talks_saving_face&gt; [27 March 2017]
  • Leibowitz, E. (2005) ‘Kissing Vivian Shing’. The New York Times [online] 29 May. available from <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/29/movies/kissing-vivian-shing.html?_r=0&gt; [27 March 2017]
  • Li, W. and Skop, E. (2010) ‘Diaspora in the United States: Chinese and Indians Compared’. Journal of Chinese Overseas 6 (2), 286-310. DOI: 10.1163/179325410X526131
  • Liang, S. (2012) ‘Contextualizing Chinese lesbian cinema: Global queerness and independent films’. New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 10 (2-3), 127-143. DOI: 10.1386/ncin.10.2-3.127_1
  • Lopez, L. K. (2011) ‘Fan activists and the politics of race in The Last Airbender’, International Journal of Cultural Studies 15 (5), 431-445
  • McDonald, K. (2016). ‘Feminist Film Theory’ in Film Theory: The Basics. London/New York: Routledge, 103-115
  • Metzger, S. (2009) ‘Saving Face, or the Future Perfect of Queer Chinese/American Cinema?’ in Futures of Chinese Cinema: Technologies and Temporalities in Chinese Screen Cultures. ed. by Khoo, O. and Metzger, S. Bristol: Intellect Books Ltd, 225-240
  • Mimura, G. M. (2009) Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
  • Mishra, V. (2002) ‘Bombay Cinema and Diasporic Desire’, in Bollywood Cinema Temples of Desire, New York: Rutledge, 235-269
  • Mitsuda, K. and Ventura, E. (2005) ‘Small Change: Alice Wu’s “Saving Face”’. Indiewire [online] 24 March. available from <http://www.indiewire.com/2005/05/small-change-alice-wus-saving-face-78231/&gt; [27 March 2017]
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  • Okado, J. (2016) Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movements. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press
  • O’Neill, P. (2013) ‘Imagining Global India: Bollywood’s Transcultural Appeal’. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 27 (2), 254-266. DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2013.766309
  • Rajgopal, S. S. (2010) ‘“The Daughter of Fu Manchu”: The Pedagogy of Deconstructing the Representation of Asian Women in Film and Fiction’. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 10 (2), 141–162
  • Strug, D. L. & Mason, S. E. (2007) ‘The Impact of 9/11 on Older Chinese and Hispanic Immigrants in New York City’. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 5 (2), 21-44. DOI: 10.1300/J500v05n02_02
  • Turner, V. (1969) Liminality and Communitas
  • Thussu, D. K. (2008) ‘The Globalization of “Bollywood” – The Hype and Hope’ in Global Bollywood. ed. by Kavoori, A. P. and Punathambekar, A. New York: New York University Press, 97-113
  • Tzioumakis, Y. (2006) American Independent Cinema: An introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • Wilkinson, K. (2005) ‘Saving Face: Microsoft’s Alice Wu Turns to Filmmaking with the First Feature-Length Asian Lesbian Film’. Lesbian News 30 (1), 24-25
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  • Representations in Chinese-Language Films’. Journal of Lesbian Studies 16 (3), 307-322, DOI: 10.1080/10894160.2012.673930
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Transformers: The Premake (2014), dir. Kevin B. Lee

NOTE: This analysis was submitted as university coursework toward Coventry University’s BA (Hons) programme of Media and Communications on 23rd March 2017, to which I was recently awarded a 2:1. This version incorporates material excised from the final submitted version.

Kevin B. Lee has been producing video essays for over a decade, working for publications including Fandor, Sight & Sound and The Dissolve. As the medium has grown through online video, Lee has innovated the genre, developing what he terms a “desktop documentary” alongside other artists at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. Transformers: The Premake acts a manifesto of sorts for what the “desktop documentary” can achieve.

The video essay may seem to be a recent innovation, thanks to the online availability of archival material, but it has a prehistory. Yet, as Morozov argues, we approach the Internet with a sense of “epochalism”, disregarding all that came before (Morozov 2013:36). The video essay owes much to the essay film, a “hybrid [documentary] form” that acts as a “self-reflective” personal investigation (Rascaroli 2008). Speaking of the structure of F for Fake (Welles 1973), Tony Zhou admits “I’ve stolen more ideas from this film than from any other”, (Zhou 2015).

Online distribution allow for a new circulation of previously disregarded experimental and essayistic cinema, creating an alternative audio-visual economy (Steyerl 2012). The video essay is not monolithic, but deploys different types of techniques and genres throughout cultural criticism, blurring the lines between video essay and the essay film. Essayists like Evan Puschak (“The Nerdwriter“) cover topics as diverse as political commentary, music criticism and film analysis; some like Lewis Bond (“Channel Criswell“) are more academic, utilising detailed, cited research, whereas others such as Lindsay Ellis deploy both academic research alongside humour, pop culture references and animation.

Lee’s video essays carry a constructed self-awareness and reflexivity. In What Makes a Video Essay Great, Lee reflects on his own experience producing and viewing video essays, questioning academic validation, the use of editing and what he terms “hypernarration”, and whether video essays challenge viewers or carry commercial interests (Lee 2014b). Reflecting on the supercut Nothing (Frezza 2014), Lee reveals how the video essay is itself a construction. Lee is speaking about Seinfeld, but he might as well be talking about the video essay itself.

[Nothing] makes us aware of how the sitcom world is constructed […] it’s not just about Seinfeld, or TV sitcoms, but about how all popular culture puts in a kind of prison state of endless entertainment, one that’s of our own choosing.

Desktop narratives are becoming an increasingly utilized narrative form. In the short film Noah (Woodman & Cederberg 2013), a teenager’s break-up with his girlfriend is relayed through Facebook messages, texts and Skype conversations, adopting the conventions of a romantic drama. In the horror film Unfriended (Gabriadze 2014), the story of a group of teenagers being haunted is told entirely through a MacBook screen, yet was exhibited theatrically.

Lee uses these techniques within a documentary mode. Lee attempts to mirror his own reality of a “15-hour daily routine in front of screens”, while acknowledging “the camera screen as both a camera lens and a canvas” and “a primary experience” of daily life and information (Lee 2014c). The viewer receives the video through the very same medium in which it was produced, combining production and reception together.

Screen Shot 2017-02-10 at 03.29.27
Transformers: The Premake becomes received through its mode of production

By positioning the video essay within a desktop screen, Lee acknowledges the construction of the form and his own limitations in utilising archival footage. Footage is not abstracted from its original context, but placed within it.

Lee constructs the identity of a Transformers fan, grounding his identity with a Dinobot wallpaper, replicating that same image as a YouTube avatar. His interest is not in Transformers but “the political economy of images”, seeking to contrast “gigantic global blockbuster production[s]” with the “hundreds of little [fan] videos”, and their relationship to “economic, cultural and political factors” that inform “production and circulation.” (Lee 2014c) Lee infuses the video with questions around Hollywood as a transcultural entity, and Detroit’s use as a production city for tax breaks.

Screen Shot 2017-02-10 at 04.13.06
Lee questions the use of Detroit as a production city

Utilising footage from Beijing, Lee questions not only Hollywood’s financial relationship with China, with co-productions that satisfy Chinese markets, but also China’s state-controlled propaganda and media, drawing attention to the lack of amateur video captured in Beijing, relying instead on news reports interviewing local vendors. We see how Detroit’s cityscape is altered, adorning Chinese signs and billboards.

Lee attempts to create a portrait of the vast and infinite network, remixing footage from fansites like Seibertron, and focusing upon individuals, depicting MrSan44Man constructing a persona as someone who “can get where nobody else can” but undercutting this as he shows three other users with similar content filmed simultaneously. In another sequence, Lee intercuts a moment on stage where Michael Bay forgets his cue cards, depicting how this incident is recorded by different outlets, disseminated on different websites, remixed by fans – and re-edited by himself.

In keeping with Jenkins’ argument that “fans’ labor in enhancing the value of an intellectual property can never be publicly recognized if the studio is going to maintain that the studio alone is the source of all value in that property” (Jenkins 2008:142), Lee argues that “the movie gets to enjoy free viral promotion through the unpaid work of fans.” (Lee 2014c)

Lee’s video is not a mere screen recording, but a carefully planned narrative, cross-referencing multiple visual and textual sources across YouTube, Google Maps, news articles, Prezi and text windows, creating an almost ethnographic study of online culture. Lee employs cinematic techniques including jump cuts (though framed as continuous) and pans and zooms.

Though Lee remixes 355 YouTube videos, Lee also involves himself as an active participant, incorporating footage captured himself on a GoPro, stored on his hard drive, becoming a citizen journalist himself. Lee’s footage reveals the paradox of online culture: as vast as it is, there are still blind spots. Other archives exist, whether institutional or personal. Amateur films, because of the process of self-representation, remain “insufficient indicators” of the past, even the recent past, left with missing information and unanswered questions (Wahlberg 2008:109).

In the conclusion, Lee reveals the construction of this world, similar to the fiction breaking in Medium Cool (Wexler 1969) as the cameraman is revealed, against documentary footage around the protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As Lee’s computer devolves into a series of explosions, we become as overwhelmed as Lee was in editing.

References

  • Gabriadze, L. (2014) Unfriended
  • Jenkins, H. (2008) Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press
  • Lee, K. B. (2014a) Transformers: The Premake [online] available from <https://vimeo.com/94101046&gt; [10 February 2017]
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  • Lee, K. B. (2014c) Premake [online] available from
  • < https://www.alsolikelife.com/premake-1&gt; [22 March 2017]
  • Morozov, E. (2013) To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist. London: Penguin Books
  • Rascaroili, L. (2008) ‘The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments’. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 49(2), 24-47.
  • Wahlberg, M. (2008). Telling Signs of Loss: Beginnings of Possible Stories, in ID (ed). Documentary Time, University of Minnesota Press, 101-117.
  • Wexler, H. (1969) Medium Cool. [Blu-ray] United Kingdom: Eureka Entertainment
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  • Zertov, D. (1929) Man with a Movie Camera. [Blu-ray] United Kingdom: Eureka Entertainment
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HyperNormalisation (2016): The Grand Narrative of History

NOTE: This essay was submitted as university coursework toward Coventry University’s BA (Hons) programme of Media and Communications on 25th November 2016, to which I was recently awarded a 2:1. This version incorporates material excised from the final submitted version.

Abstract

In this essay, I examine how Adam Curtis’ film HyperNormalisation constructs itself to forge a new perspective on reality.

Firstly, I question whether the documentary form can establish a sense of ‘truth’ within its subjectivities and a “post-truth” world, and explore how Curtis remixes existing archival footage into a narrative form.

In the second section, I confront the film’s counter-narratives to established historical events, whilst recognising that other narratives are excluded in the process.

In the final section, I discuss the intertextuality of the film, relying on existing audience knowledge, and its presentation of pop culture as an integral part of its narrative and our reality.

The thesis of HyperNormalisation 

Over the past forty years, politicians, financiers and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. They constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring. Even those who thought they were attacking the system – the radicals, the artists, the musicians, and our whole counterculture – actually became part of the trickery […]

With the BBC launching an era of digital experimentation, Curtis remains perhaps the BBC’s most experimental filmmaker, directing, editing and narrating HyperNormalisation on a £30,000 budget, with little supervision and almost complete autonomy (Adams 2016). HyperNormalisation is Curtis’ second film produced for BBC iPlayer, following 2015’s Bitter Lake (Curtis 2015). Within two weeks of its digital release, it had received over 100,000 requests on online players (BARB 2016), and has since amassed over 200,000 views worldwide on illegal reproductions.

Curtis appropriates the term ‘hypernormalisation’ from Soviet historian Alexei Yurchak, recontextualising it to the present day. Yurchak’s theory posited that Soviet discourse became increasingly “disassociated from their original meanings”, instead relying upon performative aspects that repeated “past knowledge and authority” (Tsipursky 2005).

Charting the rise of neoliberalism, positioning its origin in the 1975 New York City banking crisis, Curtis sees a market logic applied to both political systems and models of human behaviour, pushing for a “powerful new individualism” of self-improvement and consumerism that detached people from collective political action. Through the collapse of the USSR, Curtis sees a final end to the dream of “build[ing] a new kind of world”, instead creating a conservative “post-political world” that avoids radical change and maintains the status quo, eroding democracy.

Between fact and fiction: establishing truth in a post-truth world

post-truth

ADJECTIVE

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief

– Oxford English Dictionaries

In November 2016, Oxford English Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year, shifting from a “peripheral term” from its inception in 1992 to becoming a “mainstay in political commentary.” (Oxford Dictionaries 2016) Leading its rise were two movements: the nomination of Donald Trump as Republican candidate (and president-elect), and the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

Curtis positions the ‘post-truth world’ as beginning under Reagan,[1] propagating an official “blurring of fact and fiction” through “perception management”, where reality became merely something to manage. In this post-truth world, “gut-level or street knowledge” carries a new currency, supplanting expertise of any kind (Dean 2015). Curtis argues Trump is a performative “pantomime” and “a product of [a] retreat into a simplified world” of slippery and unfixed truths (McGurk 2016).

In this post-truth world, “gut-level or street knowledge” carries new currency, supplanting expertise (Dean 2015). Curtis argues social networks began making decisions for us, creating filter bubbles where users “only saw and heard what they liked”; angry Tweets only fed the corporations. Within this landscape, we have the power to “be our own spectacles” (Dean 2015) but this power carries no weight. As Dean argues, within online discourse “the ability to falsify is unlimited” (Debord 1998, cited in Dean 2015). For Curtis, our utopian dream of the internet has “confused an engineering system with a vision for the future.” (Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service 2016)

Assembling the archive

Perhaps the film’s clearest example of blurring fact and fiction is through how it constructs itself with archive footage as an “appropriation film” (Baron 2012)[2], recontextualised in a creative way, whilst also utilising elements of the essay film (Nichols 2010). Curtis’ has an anarchic sensibility: with the freedom of digital distribution, Curtis has free rein to assemble the film without the concerns of traditional broadcast slots, acting as an archivist, transferring news broadcasts from two-inch COMP tapes stored in the BBC film archive to digital form (Lethem 2016). The process of editing a film is a selective and subjective process, dependent both on available materials and Curtis’ own sensibilities.

However, he also draws upon digital sources outside the BBC archive, from Al-Qaeda/ISIS propaganda films, YouTube videos, cellphone footage and online and citizen journalism, suicide bombings and CCTV footage from the Paris attacks, while also relying upon analogue sources including corporate and promotional videos, Prozac testimonials, even workout videos. The “digital flows” of the internet have opened up “a multiplicity of archives” (Pybus 2013, cited in Pybus 2015), raising questions over whether, and how, amateur video should be preserved (Baron 2012).

Objectively, through its use of archive footage, the film carries an “ontological” and “evidentiary authority” (Spence and Navarro 2010; Baron 2012), carrying an “indexical capacity” to a real event (Nichols 2010:34). Where Curtis shows news broadcasts from the time, he presents information as it was relayed at the time.

However, the footage only conveys ‘truth’ as a result of multiple selective processes, with Curtis navigating hundreds of thousands of hours of un-broadcast rushes (Ronson 2015) and creating “art out of detritus”. (Harris 2016)

.Following on from the deconstructionist notion that “texts have no inherent meanings” (Kitzinger and Kitzinger 1993, cited in Devereux 2007), the footage is only granted meaning by what Curtis and the audience bring to it. Raw footage is merely ‘found footage’: it must be re-contextualised first, given voice through editing (Baron 2012). Yet even when originally shot, its ‘truth’ remained limited by camera position (Spence and Navarro 2010); before a news programme is even recorded, it undergoes selective processes by choice of topic and constitution, ascribed a particular context by its producers (Hartley 1982, cited in Barker 2012).

Rather than deny the constructed nature of the film, Curtis chooses to amplify it. Speaking to Dazed (Gorton 2016), Curtis said:

I get these criticisms like: ‘Is he manipulating us?’ Well, yes. The only thing I would say in my defence is that actually, I’m showing you that I’m doing it.

The film opens to TV static, encoded with a timecode, counting down to the film’s narrative beginning. Curtis lets the viewer relive his experience of searching through archive material, using what he refers to as “discordant edit[s]”, transitioning between scenes by “show[ing] the joins” (Lethem 2016). He reveals the fragile nature of the images pulled from the satellite feed, degrading over time. Through the essay form, it is “self-reflective and self-reflexive” over its own existence (Rascaroli 2008).

Subjective narratives

Utilising the essay form, Curtis amplifies the subjectivity of reconstructing history. Rather than a “definitive histor[y]”, the film instead “cast[s] doubt on the possibility of that idea.” (Adams 2016) David Jenkins criticises Curtis for manipulating the audience, depicting history as a “finite continuum” whilst positioning himself as a figure of authority (Jenkins 2016).

Unlike a monograph, built upon detailed references and a desire to present ‘objective reality’, Curtis is able to present a subjective reality in film form. Curtis is equally complicit within the system he describes, constructed by politicians, the media and academics. As Curtis argues, established narratives of the past alter not only how we perceive the future, but also how computer systems perceive it for us through datasets.

He argues his work carries a social dimension, “to make people aware of power” (Adams 2016), and thus also carries a responsibility,  “entail[ing] real consequences” in how we perceive socio-historical reality as “one voice among many” across different disciplines (Nichols 2010:68). Visual representations are implicated in “the provision and the selection construction of knowledge”, through which we perceive the “lived realities” of others (Hall 1977, cited in Barker 2012). Curtis argues his work carries a social dimension, “to make people aware of power” (Adams 2016).

Curtis perceives himself as a journalist rather than documentarian; documentary is merely the medium. He focuses on telling stories about people, introducing “new facts and data” to create a counter-narrative to established media narratives (MacInnes 2015), narrativising real world events in a structured form: Curtis’ representation of Gaddafi elicits audience sympathy, shifting him from a dictator to a human figure, manipulated by the West. Similarly, he represents Assad as a silent, contemplative figure, using rushes from news interviews to afford him no opportunity to speak.

As Corner argues, media narratives can be “totalising” and oversimplified, presenting one version of reality aligned to dominant viewpoints, (Corner 1999, cited in Thornham and Purvis 2008), often devoid of wider structural context (Barker 2012) and reduced to “aesthetic relations” with the viewer (Thornham and Purvis 2008).

Excluded narratives and representation

However, this also raises the question of what narratives Curtis excludes or emphasises. Haslett criticises Curtis for “refus[ing] to register” second-wave feminism, depicting a detached Left drifting away from collective action in favour of “self-expression” and a “narcissistic” individualism (Haslett 2016), excluding narratives of social change. As Foucault defines it, the archive is a “sociological reality” with Curtis as archivist afforded the power “privilege certain discourses over others”, unfolding one narrative over another (Foucault 2002, cited in Pybus 2015) Curtis is able to minimise the role of minorities, favouring instead broad, worldwide changes over specific identity subcultures within those systems.

Curtis saw the “collective action” of the Civil Rights Movement as having a vision of the future (Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service 2016). However, within the film, black America is seen only as militarised, radical followers of the Nation of Islam, treating Gaddafi as a fellow intellectual with promises of a “black army” of 400,000 men to fight against white America. Where Curtis directs attention to the power of the internet to bring people together in physical spaces, he focuses on the failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring to achieve lasting change, overlooking how Ferguson and systemic policy brutality against African Americans have been brought to light through online discourse, especially on social media, instead treating the modern internet as a commodity.

Curtis presents techno-utopianism dominating discourse through the 80s and 90s, escaping the real world into a “virtual reality”, exemplified by Curtis by John Perry Barlow’s Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace. Looking at early cyberspace, Curtis fails to present its “mystical sense of liberation” for women, black people and the queer community (Ferreday 2011:25), instead focusing on techo-utopianism as a retreat from the “harsh right-wing politics” of Reaganism and ignoring the internet’s power as a space of community and identity politics. Curtis depicts an early cyberculture theory dominated by an elitist, “largely male digerati” of geeks[3], ignoring its more critical and suspicious “feminist and postcolonial accounts” (Ferreday 2011:3). By only alluding to these issues in an implicit way, Curtis erases minority impacts, reinforcing an accepted white, male narrative and a sense of privilege, with no counter-narrative (Ferreday 2011:67) but a “frontier narrative”.

Affecting an active audience

Curtis’ films encourage an active audience. Charlie Lyne argues that the film’s “mammoth labyrinth of political storytelling” is better suited to the internet, allowing audiences the power to “pause and rewind at will”, supplemented with “research of their own” (Lyne 2016). Yet it also relies heavily on existing extratextual knowledge, depicting accepted elements of everyday “render[ed] strange” (Lethem 2016), tracing Donald Trump, Syria and Islamic terrorism back to the origin of their construction. Trump is presented as a counter-narrative to his contemporary media portrayal, influencing ideologies in the 1970s and 80s and exposing even his name as a “façade” plastered on buildings.

As an appropriation film, the film’s entire existence is built upon intertextuality; Baron determines that an audience only reads found footage as archival based on shifting “extratextual knowledge”, where “at least three temporalities” are always at work. (Baron 2012)

Representation as reality

Rather than a definitive binary between fact and fiction, Curtis weaves fictional representations into his narrative alongside factual events. As Curtis writes in The Guardian, “the best documentary reporting these days” are in films, praising The Big Short (McKay 2015) and American Honey (Arnold 2016) for representing wider concepts in visual and narrative form, doing more than just reinforcing an audience’s existing beliefs. (Curtis 2016b) For Curtis, films and novels are more than just reflections of the contexts they were made in, but hold the power to influence its direction.

Whereas some of the film extracts merely invites the viewer to draw parallels, acting as “parodies of fear to undercut the fear” (as is the case with Curtis’ depiction of Kissinger and Assad), creating a sense of audience familiarity, as if it were “a program made by someone you know” (Lethem 2016), Curtis addresses a deeper notion around intertextual representation.

revenge
Curtis presents an image of Assad as an Italian gangster, juxtaposing this shot against Ennio Morricone’s score to Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (Bertolucci 1981)

In Curtis’ world, film and literature representations within science fiction hold an active power in redefining socio-historical reality. Where Curtis depicts the collapse of the USSR, he attributes Roadside Picnic (Strugatsky 1972) and its adaptation, Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979), with creating a dissident movement, revealing an unstable, unfixed world, where “reality changes minute by minute”. Curtis attributes new meaning, transforming Tarkovsky’s film into a visual metaphor, not only to the USSR but to our current state of reality.


However, some fictional realities cut deeper. Curtis repositions William Gibson’s ideas within Neuromancer (Gibson 1984) not as the birth of the cyberpunk movement within film and literature, but as an active influence in how we conceived of cyberspace, elevating its importance from fiction to reality. Curtis notes how Gibson extrapolated on 1980s computer networks, and parallels the current state of the internet and social media with Gibson’s vision, seeing a shift from a techno-utopian world to a world of “raw, brutal corporate power”, defined by “superficial freedoms” and opaque systems, analogous to social media filter bubbles. 

tron
Tron (Lisberger 1982) and Neuromancer (Gibson 1984) are presented as the foundations for establishing the future of cyberspace

In a supercut sequence, Curtis asks the viewer to re-examine late-90s disaster movies, afforded a new context through the passage of time. Through the concept of the ‘archive effect’, Baron acknowledges a “temporal disparity” between when a film is produced and received by an audience. We become aware of “images of time’s inscription on human bodies and places”, recognising its absence through landmarks such as the Twin Towers.(Baron 2012).

Curtis’ selection of images reinforce parallels: living bodies fall from buildings; everyday people running from smoke, projecting a different meaning on the images than the inscribed intention, transformed through our own exposure to news images from 9/11. Curtis’ looping of the cartoonish image of the falling man by looping it, calling attention to its shifted meaning.

As Ellis emphasises, our perceptions around 9/11 are continually shifting, moving from an emphasis on “patrotic affirmation” in the wake of the attacks, to a modern repurposing of 9/11 imagery in superhero films (Ellis 2016).

rock_1
The Rock (Bay 1996) – Curtis suggests the film’s depiction of terrorist nerve agents influenced a key MI6 document produced in 2002 into the existence of WMDs, using actual fiction to justify the invasion of Iraq

We’re Fucked

HyperNormalisation exemplifies the difficulty not only to represent the world, but also the difficulty to even understand the world, highlighting its constructed nature not only through its discourse, but in a conscious and calculated manipulation through a system of “perception management” by governments and PR system. Using an essayistic narrative structure created entirely out of archival footage, Curtis reveals this reality through his complicity within it, accepting that his film is also, similarly, constructed, and at the mercy of alternative readings. The film acts a primer to wider discourses around politics, the media and historiography.

Curtis captures a contemporary mood of disillusionment and pessimism and amplifies it, tracing its roots through decades of history back to an origin point.

Speaking of the possibility of the election of Trump, Curtis said (Adams 2016):

It means the pantomime has become reality and starts rampaging around. And then we are fucked.

The pantomime has become reality.

References

[1] Although the term “post-truth” is not used explicitly in the film itself, it was used in promotional materials.

[2] Nichols refers to this form as a “compilation film” (Nichols 2010); however, I will avoid Nichols’ term as I feel it downplays the creative process.

[3] Curtis’ dissenting voices are a pair of teenage hackers, Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak

La haine (1995): France, Islamophobia and a history of youth in revolt

lahaine

NOTE: This essay was submitted as university coursework toward Coventry University’s BA (Hons) programme of Media and Communications on December 1st 2015, to which I was recently awarded a 2:1. Given the nature of the essay firmly reflecting events in November 2015, this essay has only been edited for publication on this blog for formatting. However, there are a number of elements that could be addressed within a revised version, to avoid sweeping statements and a generalisation of the “media narrative”. Other resources exist out there such as Ginette Vincendeau’s 2005 critical text on the film, and recent non-fiction sources on the War of Terror and Islamophobia such as Lawrence Wright’s extraordinary The Looming Tower (Wright 2006) and Arun Kundnani’s wonderful The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (Kundnani 2014).

In the intervening time since I wrote this essay, new analyses and recollections of these events have been formed both through critical texts and documentaries. At the same time, a broader exploration could address other films centred on life in the banlieues and the surrounding political context towards zoning and the spatial conception of the city in itself: Girlhood (Sciamma 2014) and Divines (Benyamina 2016), other French cinema about “youth in revolt” dating back to 1968, the colonial unravelling of The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), the terrorists without a cause in Nocturama (Bonello 2016) today, and the monochrome violent excesses of the Belgian film Man Bites Dog (Poeelvorde, Belvaux and Bonzel 1992). At the same time, there’s a broader context surrounding depictions of Muslim identity within film itself. Addressing this today, I would focus more on deconstructive film theory aided by scenes and analysis.

Abstract

Three weeks ago, three extremists opened fire on an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan Theatre. 89 of the 1500 attendees were killed.

Facebook profiles turned red, white and blue. Twitter feeds fill with #PrayForParis. Amazon has declared liberté.

But these marks of respect ignore the real issues.

Because Paris is a city of 1,700,000 Muslims (ADRI 2000, cited in Laurene and Vaisse 2006). Looking at history, from the 1792 revolution, to the 1961 massacre of Algerians and more recent racial attacks and the Charlie Hebdo shooting, these events may seem unconnected, but their roots stem from a culture of repression and violence within France.

Racial identity

Islam is not a racial identity. But it has become a marker of race and class.

The media narrative has focused on Muslim identities in relation to the Middle East. Al Qaeda grew from the Middle East; ISIS grew from Syria. Therefore all terrorists are Middle Eastern. By extension, all Muslims are terrorists. Galonnier argues that this is a “racialization of religion” (Barot and Bird 2001, cited in Galonnier 2015) based on ethnography, phenotypes and cultural characteristics, and a conflation of racial and religious identity. However, the reality is that in France, the majority of Muslims are North African (78%). A similar situation exists with American Muslims, with 42% being African American (Galonnier 2015). In effect, it is essentialising (Hall 97), and also an example of casual racism and Islamophobia (Rana, 2007; Hajjat and Mohammed, 2013, cited in Galonnier 2015).

Race is an inescapable aspect of Muslim identity. There are 100,000 white converts to Islam in France (Galonnier 2015) – a negligible amount compared to the 4,710,000 overall (Pew Research Centre 2010), the 2nd highest in Europe. For white Muslims, “converts discover the world of racial discrimination” that is an even deeper problem for black Muslims (Galonnier 2015). Fears around Ahmad Al Mohammad being a Syrian refugee as perpetuated by the media, and the controversy around this, plays into our racialized ideas and an overall fear and lack of trust of refugees. Yet the majority of suspects were French nationals; Salah Abdeslam was born in Belgium (Farmer 2015).

The media narrative creates a binary paradigm between “us vs. them”. ISIS reinforce this message also – their fight is not only one between the Middle East and the West, but also one between Islam and Christianity. This is an oversimplification. To most French Muslims, the ‘Other’ (Dyer 1977, cited in Hall 1997) are Islamic extremists. But to the majority of French citizens, the ‘Other’ or ‘them’ are Arabs. (Maxwell and Bleich 2014) To those living in Paris, the ‘them’ are the citizens of social housing, the banlieues.

Assimilation

An important aspect of this discussion is the idea of marginalisation. For people of colour and of faith in France, this is compounded by the idea of assimilation, rather than multiculturalism. Social scientist William Kornblum described it as a “republican ethic” which sees no difference between race, however this attitude limits the political organisation of racial minorities and the discussion of these issues (Mabilon and Tsui 2007). To white people living in France, their identity is ‘French’ rather than ‘white’ (Galonnier 2015).

In the Dispatch documentary series France at War, produced by VICE News and uploaded within only 3 days of the attacks, a number of French Muslims were profiled in the streets on their reaction to the events. One interviewee expressed that he felt because of the country’s emphasis on secularism, he feels like a second class citizen. He argues that in France “you have to erase your background in order to fit it.” (VICE News 2015)

Marginalised youth and class

Whilst racial and religious factors influenced the Paris attacks, another aspect is social class. For the French people, race is intrinsically linked to social class.

Since the post-war period of housing, France saw a wave of housing development. According to Jeff Fagan, social housing was centred around impoverished areas and the Parisian suburbs, the areas with the weakest political influence. These banlieues were initially seen as desirable to the middle and working classes, however a lack of government funding to cultural projects, halted by President d’Estaing, saw a segregation and ghettoisation (Mabilon and Tsui 2007). The economic crisis and an influx of North African immigrants during the 1950s and 60s altered the structure of the working class saw the “socialized and spatialized” marginalisation of not just the poor but racial minorities, who are associated with “crime and delinquency” (Galonnier 2015). Within a neoliberal society where the middle class is defined as the “new particular” and the dominant class, both in terms of social positioning and culture, this reinforces the marginalisation of the banlieues and by extension racial and religious minorities. (Skeggs, Wood, and Thumim 2007) Rather than emerging from intent, this racial order has become “normalized” and “rationalised” (Frankberg 1993).

The idea of ‘us vs. them’ between the cités and the banlieue was exemplified in the film La haine (Kassovitz 1995). La haine was part of the 1990s cinéma des banlieues movement, and focused on an issue that had generally been avoided by French filmmakers (Higbee 2001). However, representation creates its own system of power: a symbolic power (Hall 1997). The film sees the social and spatial separation of three disenfranchised youths, Vinz, Hubert and Saïd, who live within a banlieue and travel to Paris, only to find themselves unable to interact with Parisian and middle class culture, and falling into confrontations with the French police. The characters in the film are integrated; Vinz is Jewish, Hubert is French-African and Saïd is Arabian. Higbee argues this representation of multi-ethnic groups is too oversimplified, with the diversity of ethnic groups reduced down to three characters who have to carry the weight of that identity (Higbee 2001).

But these characters’ experience is not so far from reality. Chérif Kouachi, a mastermind of the Charlie Hebdo attack, had grown up in the Gennevilliers banlieue in Paris (Keane 2015), whilst Paris attack suspect Omar Ismail Mostefai had grown up in poverty in the suburb of Courcouronnes.

Although their ages are not given in the film, the actors ranged from 21-28 year olds. Compare this with the identities of the suspected Paris attackers given in the press: Omar Ismail Mostefai (29); Salah and Ibrahim Abdeslam (26 and 31); Bilal Hadfi (20); Samy Amimour (28) and Abdel Hamid Abaaoud (27). There have also been reports of a history of petty crime with both Omar Ismail Mostefai and Salah Abdeslam; the characters of La haine try to steal a car as a way to survive.

Especially in the context of police brutality, a cause of both the 2005 riots and social upheaval amongst youth throughout the 1980s and 90s[1] and the 1993 murder of Makome M’Bowole that inspired the film (Geffroy 2005), was the perceptions of youth and these communities, attributing “normative characteristics” to those in poverty (Haylett 2001). According to Gilman, stereotypes arise when self-integration is threatened, but this structure of ‘us vs. them’ is only an “illusionary binary” (Gilman 1985). The “normative characteristics” of crime and delinquency only encourage radicalisation, police brutality and by extension rioting, further disenfranchisement by youth and further police rioting: in essence, circular violence.

According to a study by Robert Leiken, Muslim extremism in Europe is typically found among the children of migrants, not their parents – but he claims it is present in integrated communities and not just isolated ones (Leiken 2011, cited in Maxwell and Bleich 2014).

That is not to conflate the youth of the banlieue with terrorist. But it helps illustrate that radicalisation and Islamic terrorism is not merely an issue of religious ideology, but these factors all stem from marginalisation.

Muslim identity

In a 2014 study on Muslim identity by Maxwell and Bleich, they found that 75% of immigrant Muslims feel French, compared to 98% French natives (Maxwell and Bleich 2014). France has the second-highest Muslim population in Europe (4,710,000, 7.5% of the population), compared to 4.8% in other predominantly white countries like the UK (Pew Research Center 2010).

However, there is no official recognition of religion within the official census, only of race, which means it is difficult to track how this affects identity. This extends to institutions, which have supported Christian and Muslim organisations but not Muslim ones (Maxwell and Bleich 2014). The banning of “religious symbols” such as the veil in 2011 (and previously in schools in 2004) shows a lack of understanding by the government of the cultural identity of religion, and creates a distinction between private and religious identity, a “convenient” symbol of “external and internal dangers”, such as the Iraq War (Bowen, cited in Salem 2013). President Sarkozy argued that a veil is an “attack” on French values, but this only victimises the Muslim identity, and ignores the laicite (separation of church and state) heralded by Jules Ferry during the 1800s (Adrian 2015).

Is it about race or religion?

During the 1970s, Muslim immigrants were unwanted in French society; Immigration Minister Lionel Stoleru attempted to enable deportation (Salem 2013). This perception seems not to carry forward today, with an overwhelming 72% of people interviewed finding them favourable, a greater percentage than most of Europe (Pew Research Center 2014). But to the rest of Europe, Muslims have become are “the Jews of Eastern Europe a century ago” (Zolberg and Woon, cited in Salem 2013).

However, most of France’s Muslims come from former colonies, including Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia (Maxwell and Bleich 2014). White converts to Islam are not merely converting to a religion, but are “traitors”, because of France’s history of antagonism with Algeria (Galonnier 2015). Or perhaps, as Helbling puts it, it is merely a fear of the unknown. (Helbling 2012, cited in Maxwell and Bleich 2014).

References

  • Adrian, M. (2015) ‘Outlawing the Veil, Banning the Muslim? Restricting Religious Freedom in France’. Cross Currents 65 (3), 371-379
  • Farmer, B. (2015) Who were the terrorists? Everything we know about the Isil attackers so far’. The Telegraph [online] 18 November. available from <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11996120/Paris-attack-what-we-know-about-the-suspects.html> [20th November 2015]
  • Frankberg, R. (1993) The Social Construction of Whiteness: white woman, race matters. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press
  • Galonnier, J. (2015) The racialization of Muslims in France and the United States: Some insights from white converts to Islam’. Social Compass 62 (4)
  • Geffroy, M. (2005) Les 10 Ans de ‘La haine’. in Kassovitz, M. (1995) La haine. [DVD] United Kingdom: Optimum Home Entertainment
  • Gilman, S. (1985) ‘The deep structure of stereotypes’. ibid, 285
  • Hackett, C. (2015) ‘5 facts about the Muslim population in Europe’ [online] available from <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/17/5-facts-about-the-muslim-population-in-europe/> [17 November 2015]
  • Hall, S. (1997) Stereotyping as a signifying practice. in Representation, ed. by Hall. SAGE Publications, 257-290
  • Higbee, W. (2001) ‘Screening the ‘other’ Paris: cinematic representations of the French urban periphery in La Haine and Ma 6-T Va Crack-er’. Modern & Contemporary France 9 (2), 197–208
  • Kassovitz, M. (1995) La haine. [DVD] United Kingdom: Optimum Home Entertainment
  • Keane, F. (2015) ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: The suburbs and the suspects’ BBC News [online] 8 January. available from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30737572>
  • Laurene, J. and Vaisse, J. (2006) Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France. Washington, DC.: Brookings Institution Press
  • Mabilon, A. and Tsui, C. (2007) La haine: Social Dynamite. in Kassovitz, M. (1995) La haine. DVD. United States: The Criterion Collection
  • Maxwell, R. and Bleich, E. (2014) What Makes Muslims Feel French?’. Social Forces 93 (1), 155-179
  • Salem, J. M. (2013) Citizenship and Religious Expression for Muslims in the West’. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 33 (1), 77-92
  • VICE News (2015) Battling the Backlash: France At War (Dispatch 2) [online], available from <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vRoAPKaWao> [16th November 2015]

[1] Kassovitz states in the 2005 commentary to the film that he participated in these riots

Silence (1971), dir. Shinoda Masahiro

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Perhaps the most striking and memorable works of the Japanese New Wave dealt with modern society – formal experimentation, sexual liberation, gun-toting yakuza, but often these films focused upon Japan’s history, at the crossroads between feudalism, military imperialism, American occupation and technological modernity that have shaped Japan so profoundly in the past six decades. Adapted from Endō Shūsaku’s 1966 novel, Shinoda’s version of Silence differs most notably from Scorsese’s magnum opus in its sense of timing. Released five years after the novel’s publication and during Endō’s lifetime, Scorsese was instead involved in pre-production for two-and-a-half decades, refining each element alongside his most trusted collaborators, screenwriter Jay Cocks and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Alongside their joint affiliation to major cinematic movements (Japanese New Wave, New Hollywood), both directors worked within major national studios (Toho, Paramount) to bring their work to the screen. Shinoda doesn’t approach Silence with the theological and Catholic underpinning that made Scorsese’s film a sermon in the most positive way, placing the viewer within the depths of spiritual meditation on this world, faith and the next world.

Japanese cinema, before and since Rashōmon (1950), has been impacted by its perception both domestically and abroad and encouraging cultural dialogue, placing Silence in an interesting position with its exploration of cultural conflict with Buddhism, the homogenisation of western values and moral authority. Shinoda places audience identification within the plight and suffering of the Japanese people, highlighting the true brutality of religious repression: bodies drowning, horses marching upon heads buried in the sand, mass executions. We shift between scenes spoken in Shinoda’s native Japanese, overdubbed dialogue and exchanges spoken in English within the priests’ private company (with Japanese subtitles embedded within the bottom of the frame). The decision to cast Ferreira (Tamba Tetsurō) in ‘whiteface’ might seem ill conceived, but it becomes a visual representation of these ethnic and religious conflicts: a white European from Portugal, taking the name and wife of a Japanese man, literally taking a Japanese body and replacing it with whiteness; Shinoda does not need to be literal.

Although unable to display wide expanses of nature as cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto achieved so wonderfully in Scorsese’s film, in the tighter 1:33.1 frame (following a long tradition of Japanese cinema) many of Scorsese’s best elements are present through Miyagawa Kazuo’s wonderful cinematography of landscapes, sunsets and found and painted objects. Combined with stretches of meditative scenes, montages and juxtaposing Takemitsu Tōru’s violent, contradictory music against the natural soundscape, Shinoda pushes a more experimental dimension, as though the radicalism of the 1960s is not so far apart from the shogunate. Just as the Bible can have multiple texts with no definitive version (the King James, the American International, its original language and stories), so too can these alternative versions of Silence co-exist: on screen, in imagination and in prose. (Scorsese even lifts his film’s logo and typography from Shinoda’s Silence.) Between Japanese and English, Shinoda and Scorsese, sentences and images convey the same meaning but in different ways. Not all of the performances are perfect, but it is nonetheless visually striking.

The Pawnbroker (1964), dir. Sidney Lumet: The Cost of Memory

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Before Lumet became mainstream, he worked on the periphery of independence, with The Pawnbroker distributed through Ely Landau’s American International Pictures. As Mark Harris notes in Scenes from a Revolution (2008), the project had been developed at MGM with Arthur Hiller as director, but requirements to soften the script led Landau to finance $1.2 million out of his pocket, with the film produced on a $930,000 budget. As Leonard J. Leff highlights in his essay on The Pawnbroker, MGM wanted the film shot in London, whereas United Artists wanted the film to lose its Holocaust element (Leff 1996:3) and Paramount turned it down outright (1996:9), with directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Karel Reisz and Franco Zeffirelli also turning it down (1996:5).

Adapted from the novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, who passed away only a year after publication, The Pawnbroker is far from a B picture, but a response to Jewish trauma of the Holocaust that should be considered in the same sentence as Lumet’s better-known works. Through its exploration of the fractured soul of Jewish, German-born (unlike the novel’s Polish Jew) New York pawnbroker and Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), Lumet focuses on its aftereffects. Son to Jewish immigrants, Lumet’s parents hailed from Warsaw (then a territory of the Russian Empire); Lumet’s father, Baruch, appears bedridden in the film as Tessie’s father in a powerful scene confronting the generational mortality of a people confronting genocide. Nazerman leaves him to the “land of the dead”, closing the door.

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Sidney Lumet’s father, Baruch, appears in the film as Tessie’s father

Cinematic responses to the Holocaust are complex, especially when Jewish history is the history of Hollywood, just as much as Jewish history is the history of comic books and the Frankfurt School. Hollywood studios such as Warner Bros. were founded by Jews, and this followed in Jewish directors like Nichols (nee Peschkowsky), Brooks (nee Kaminsky), Spielberg, Aronofsky and Baumbach. In part, this required an erasure of Jewish identity and nominal Anglicisation; before Hoffman’s role in The Graduate (1967), Jews weren’t considered as leading men. But beyond the liberation of concentration camps in “Pimpernel” Smith (1942), the Jewish ghetto of The Great Dictator (1940) and the largely suppressed None Shall Escape (1943), Hollywood largely ignored the Holocaust. Instead, images were left to documentarians, directors such as George Stevens working alongside the government and military. As Mark Harris masterfully portrays in Five Came Back (2014), Stevens was irreparably harmed witnessing the remnants of Dachau with his camera, capturing images of “the vastness and the specific sadism of crimes against humanity”, losing his Protestant faith and unable to confront his rushes.

The Pawnbroker’s fractured editing allows us to confront the Holocaust’s economy of images. Stevens’ depiction of liberation provided essential, indisputable visual testimony to Nuremberg. But Night Will Fall (1955) and German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (2014) would be assembled in subsequent decades; Shoah (1985) stripped away photographic evidence in favour of spoken testimony. Within other mediums, representations such as the illustrated visual testimony of Maus (1980-91), although stylised, allow us to come face to face with the Holocaust’s imagery. Directors such as Miloš Forman, Billy Wilder and Chantal Akerman would, in part, be defined within their identities as the children of survivors or victims. As Wilder recalls in Billy, How Did You Do It? (1992), he was asked by Paramount executives to change the traitor in Stalag 17 (1953) from German to Polish in order to secure German box office; Wilder instead left the studio he worked at since he fled. Kubrick abandoned The Aryan Papers after over a year’ of planning because of the weight of historical testimony; The Day the Clown Cried (1972) was suppressed through Jerry Lewis’ insistence. Produced in the immediate decades following the Holocaust, The Pawnbroker sits alongside films that alluded to the camps but rarely entered them, such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Producers (1967).

In the implacable opening we witness Nazerman’s children running through pastoral fields. In the present, Nazerman lays on a deckchair in a suburban American world of lemonade, pop music and style against rows of identical houses. We feel Nazerman’s internality: Bertha remembers the 25 years since the death of his wife Ruth, but asks Sol whether he’d like to go on a tour of Europe and feel the atmosphere of old cities. Sol’s experience is different: for him, Europe is a “graveyard” of the dead, occupied territories that marched its people to death. In the pawnshop, Nazerman’s relationship with Puerto Rican shop assistant Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez) introduces a tragedy to someone who never lived it: Ortiz notices the number imprinted on his arm, asking whether he is a member of a secret society. To survive, as Nazerman comments, he must achieve the miraculous, and “learn to walk on water”. Threatened by racketeer Rodriguez (Brock Peters), we sense Nazerman’s desire for death that will come “when you wish it hadn’t”. Merely for being a Jew born in Germany, Nazerman’s existence and autonomy has been in jeopardy since birth.

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In the film’s opening scene, we flashback to young children running through pastoral fields

Though Lumet’s preference had been James Mason, Rod Steiger had appeared ahead of Boris Kaufman’s lens before in On the Waterfront (1954); Steiger had been attached since early on and contributed to the screenplay (Leff 1996:5). In The Pawnbroker, Steiger portrays the difficulties of suffering from PTSD, constructing a cage within and burying trauma. Nazerman walks through East Harlem as nobody, his pawnshop one among many others. On the subway, he moves between cars, focusing intently on gazes: what’s on other minds, what he represents through mere appearance. This constant motion is something we see again in Son of Saul (2015): the camera follows Saul from behind across the chambers and camp, the frame’s corners forcing us to bear witness to his complicity and the loss of the body’s sanctity Saul is forced to ignore. The complexity of memory becomes dislocated in another city, country and time. Though his relationship with Ortiz carries a trace of his life as a professor, it can never be identical.

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Nazerman walks between cars on the subway with his identity known only to himself

Nazerman suffers survivor’s guilt: why did he live, and not the family and friends around him? As he reflects to social worker Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald):

I didn’t die. Everything that I loved was taken away from me, and I did not die.

Initially, Marilyn sees his surface, asking whether “blood really flow[s] through you”. As he tells her, he has escaped from emotions, without desire for vengeance. Nazerman walks through dark corridors to find her Long Island apartment, desiring companionship. Looking from her balcony at the city’s outskirts, he comes to understand the memories flooding his mind. In the front room, Lumet portrays stillness: Marilyn tries to take in the immensity, but cannot. Just as Nazerman is powerless, so too are viewers, unable to change history.

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Marilyn offers her hand as she begins to understand what Sol is experiencing, but she can never completely understand

The Pawnbroker’s New York setting is fitting, especially considering the Jewish communities depicted in films like Hester Street (1975) that explored the cultural practices within the 1890s wave of Russian Jewish immigration and assimilation Lumet’s father was a part of. But The Pawnbroker’s East Harlem setting is also fitting to Lumet’s wider canon: the New York talent of theatre and television, the cross-section of jurors in 12 Angry Men (1957), the apartments of The Anderson Tapes (1971), the police corruption and racial profiling within Italian American communities of the Bronx of Serpico (1973), and the Brooklyn bank heist of Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Although Lumet worked with Connery and British settings throughout the 60s and 70s, New York City’s geography remains essential. We hear auditory landscapes, subway cars rattling, in a city dotted with Pepsi logos, Loew’s Theatre and night-lights. Nazerman’s Jewish identity coexists alongside the city’s diversity, an immediate affront to Nazi racial genocide, and indeed must coexist along the intersections of American, German and New Yorker. From Irish to Italian immigrants, American race is but a construct, responding to contradictions of ethnicity, politicisation, scapegoats, socialisation, the concept of the “other” and dominant power structures.

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Nazerman walks through New York City

Ethnicity is a frequent factor for Lumet, even when it isn’t the focus, such as in the racial assumptions of 12 Angry Men, and the West Indies-born Jacko in The Hill (1965), suffering endemic racial discrimination despite himself being a member of the Commonwealth. In The Pawnbroker, Lumet embraces the youthful sexuality of Ortiz and his black girlfriend, framing close-up kissing faces and their laughter in sexual embrace. Black onlookers witness chaos unfolding from windows above as Ortiz crawls onto the sidewalk with documentary realism. Composer Quincy Jones places himself alongside black film and the black music industry, working with Steiger and Poitier on In the Heat of the Night, defining a generation with Fresh Prince and meeting and working with figures that include Mandela, Malcolm X, Cosby, Tupac, Prince and Stevie Wonder. However, Jones faced systematic racial discrimination from Hollywood. As he recalls of In Cold Blood (1967):

Truman Capote, that motherfucker, he called Richard Brooks up on In Cold Blood and said, ‘Richard, I don’t understand why you’ve got a Negro doing the music for a film with no people of color in it.’ And Richard Brooks said, ‘Fuck you, he’s doing the music.’

The pawnshop carries symbolic weight: the Holocaust in part began through assaults on Jewish businesses. Kristallnacht saw Jewish property and possessions confiscated, funding the Nazi economy. Some of the Holocaust’s defining images are lost possessions: piles of shoes and glasses, reflecting lives and stories. The pawnshop, despite the racketeering deception against Nazerman, facilitates exchange. Competing forces create complicity towards anti-Semitism: the Polish Jewish identities of Kaufman and Lumet and the Russian pogroms that led immigration; American refusal to admit Jewish refugees before and during World War II, and an intellectual, literary and political sphere that supported eugenics. In film, Lois Weber’s abortion narrative Where Are My Children? (1916) depicted eugenics as a viable option to abolishing poverty, disability and the lower classes. The Holocaust had been orchestrated through policies and infrastructure marginalising and attacking minorities and the disabled, and the complicity (in structures and individuals) of occupied territories. Even in the land of freedom, a nation founded on the genocide of Native Americans, Nazerman cannot escape anti-Semitism. As Bernard Perlin juxtaposes in his painting Orthodox Boys (1948), Jewish street subjects stand alongside a wall of graffiti, including the swastika. Spiritually, economically, temporally, and in the days of the working week, everything has a cost. But Nazerman is a victim of the costs of war: he doesn’t owe anyone anything.

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Orthodox Boys (1948), displayed at Tate Liverpool

Nazerman’s values have lost meaning against the cost of 6 million lives. Toward every customer and barterer, Nazerman manipulates an item’s cost, slashed or inflated: a gold award, sold for a dollar; a locket with no fixable price; a Laika camera, shifting between $20, $50, $2 and the $12.50 sign. Between profit and loss, Nazerman doesn’t care about bosses. As we hear a radio’s distorted tones, overwhelming Nazerman, we realise an object’s multiple values: a woman pawning her mother’s radio; Nazerman living in a state that solidified the dissemination of propaganda through mass-produced radios (Volksempfänger). Marilyn initially visits as a “new neighbor” asking for a sponsor and coach to invest in children’s sports. An elderly black customer visits in loneliness, “hungry for talk” and discussing philosophy as Nazerman sips his drink, until he leaves. Nazerman’s philosophy envisions money as the “whole thing”, life’s sole purpose and absolute beyond the speed of light. Nazerman is nihilistic: God, art, science, newspapers, politics and philosophy hold no meaning; only the constructed meaning of numbers and currency signify anything. As he closes the shop each day, he walks solemnly in darkness. In the cramped apartment, lined by a menorah, Nazerman remains contained within windows, behind curtains. As her father dies, Nazerman’s response to Tessie’s phone call lacks empathy and humanity, but instead immediately moves on: all there is to be done is to “bury him”, refusing to “come over and cry”. But the conclusion suggests Nazerman regaining emotion: Ortiz is reduced to a corpse, carried away underneath a cloak. Nazerman screams out, internal pain manifesting externally: hands bloodied, a personal relationship affecting his sense of self. Nazerman looks to the heavens towards mercy that can never come.

The dehumanisation of anti-Semitism existed long before Nazism, in notions of the Messiah, crucifixion, God and cultural traditions linked to Abrahamic faith. Nazerman relates to Ortiz “the secret of our success” before the establishment of Israel: nothing to sustain the Jewish people for “several thousand years” but a “great bearded legend”, without food, land or army, but a “mercantile heritage” of merchants, usurers, witches, pawnbrokers, sheenies, makies and kikes. As he explains:

With this little brain you go out and you buy a piece of cloth and you cut that cloth in two and you go and sell it for a penny more than you paid for it. Then you run right out and buy another piece of cloth, cut it into three pieces and sell it for three pennies profit.

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Nazerman acts as a teacher to Ortiz

Under the Nazi regime, the parasitic, conspiratorial discourse of films like Der ewige Jude (1940) contributed towards vitriolic views. As David Welch notes in Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933-1945 (2001), Jud Süss (1940) recruited Jews from the Lublin ghetto for its production (2001:240), and, according to an SS report, prompted anti-Semitic demonstrations in Berlin (2001:245). Discrimination against Nazerman becomes self-hatred: Nazerman rejects everyone, “black, white, yellow”, as scum. Nazerman has lost hope in God; Ortiz, with a cross around his neck and in his bedroom, holds on. Faith no longer unifies: St Mary’s is squeezed between a congested New York street, parishioners worshipping shrines. Marilyn might be in search for an answer, but Nazerman is still searching.

The Pawnbroker is made through Ralph Rosenblum’s revolutionary, novelistic editing, drawing parallels across temporalities. Flash cuts resemble memory beyond scripted scenes, stopping us in our tracks and interrupting our sense of the present, moving inside Kaufman’s central, indelible monochrome images. Nazerman’s nightmares unveil in progression: one image is revealed, before an associated image is recalled as the scene becomes more structured. Memory is constant: remembering, re-evaluating, recontextualising, reforming. Time distorts memory, collapsing images and events into one whole, repressing and writing over others. Nazerman seeks to be frozen in time, in a body that should never have survived: he refuses to change the day upon the pawnshop’s calendar, before he is forced to confront a page ripped away. The Holocaust is temporal, defined by its place in time and the time afterwards. In Come and See (1985), depicting the genocide of Byelorussian villagers during the Nazi occupation, we are confronted with manipulating the immensity of time, with the boy Florya shooting his gun at a framed image of Hitler, unspooling the occupation, his rallies and his birth in reverse sequence.

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Through the pawnshop’s calendar, Nazerman wishes time to be frozen in stasis

Rosenblum utilises time as associations. In the opening, we witness the idyllic countryside, against blades of wheat and grass. In slow motion, children run, suspended from time, Kaufman focusing intently upon hands and smiling faces. We return throughout, depicting prosperity in peace. Later, towards the conclusion, we experience a slow dissolve from butterflies, returning to a hand in the field. In the first implementation of flash cuts, we follow Nazerman through the streets as he witnesses a gang beating up a black man, framed from a distance through the urban, steel fence. Nazerman sees, but never interacts; walking forward, the past behind him. Parallels are formed not only visually, but audibly: a dog barking, running ahead of an officer towards the camera. The camp’s barbed wire fences are more threatening than its urban counterpart, but enclose body and soul across different time periods. In the camps, Lumet disorients through attention to detail: prisoners and commandants don’t speak English, but German, but these memories are largely intended as visual spaces. Returning to the present, Nazerman begins to drive, almost mowing down a pedestrian that heckles him from behind the glass, denigrating him a nut, a moron, a bad driver: phrases and terminology that have roots in the stigmatisation of disability and the culture of eugenics.

Rosenblum achieves similar disorientation within the subway car and deportation train, unifying these spaces. Nazerman is impacted to his very soul by the subway train: his eyes dart across, a spectacle to other commuters and passengers; he shakes with anxiety across the carriage, needing to get off but unable to. By depicting the immensity of discomfort through editing and cinematography, Rosenblum parallels the rattling, blackness and lack of light by repeatedly cutting against the deportation train. We see the shaking and dishevelment of death itself, creating a sense of the stench and the smell: ashen faces, bodily fluids, a lack of life. As a baby falls to the ground, Rosenblum’s parallels the scream of the baby falling to the ground as a transition into the primal scream of Nazerman as he frees himself away from the train, his hands covering his ears and face. Rosenblum immense power of images places the viewer in a constant state of pain, never allowing us to return to our own sense of safety, The film draws other associations: a pregnant woman pawns her diamond engagement ring in desperation, only to be shocked as she learns from Nazerman that it is glass. As the camera focuses intently on his face, Rosenblum draws a parallel to the loss of possessions and bodies stolen by the Nazis: in a close-up, we witness hands upon barbed wire, and possessions removed from prisoners’ hands. As Nazerman is forced to confront his own memory, he sees his head smashed through glass by SS officers. The use of glass (and the glass of the camera lens itself), forces us to lay witness to the literal shattering of Germany’s Jewish community through the attacks on synagogues, shops and homes in the Night of Broken Glass. In Auschwitz, we witness lines and lines of new arrivals arriving at their deaths. As pressure is applied to Nazerman’s hand by Rodriguez, we flash between faces from earlier in the film in rapid succession.

Nazerman’s trauma as handled through Rosenblum’s editing addresses a real phenomenon. As Jewish writer Gila Lyons describes, trauma from the Holocaust is often epigenetic and inheritable, creating stress and anxiety, with Lyons vividly experiencing “the crunch of heavy boots on sticks and leaves” and “lines of emaciated prisoners” as she visited sleepover camp, with everyday situations triggering unshakeable associations. Lumet provides the opposite of the verisimilitude of later films like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), that opt instead to depict the camps with an immersive attention to detail, following our protagonists into the gas chambers: witnessing uniforms, showers, and the release of poison gas, and yet perhaps achieves a more poignant effect.

Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of the film is its depiction of nudity, sexuality and the human body. Lumet was placed within a battle with both the Catholic Legion of Decency (‘Condemned’) and the Production Code, exhibiting the weakness of the 30 year old code’s longevity. But Lumet’s use of nudity is, in principle, nothing scandalous. Instead, nudity reveals both the interior of Nazerman’s character, and the true horror of the Holocaust: millions of lives stripped away from their bodies to ash. In the camps, the naked body is de-eroticised: not sexual, but human. Women are constantly threatened by the sexual violence of officers, standing over women, using them as objects to rape and abuse, disempowered and without agency but reduced to statues. In the cattle car, Nazerman not only loses his children, but his wife, as a fatal victim to the rape of officer. And yet, these situations that lack any sexuality are presented as such, through the wave of 1970s Nazisploitation of the power play of The Night Porter (1974) and films like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1975) and SS Experiment Love Camp (1976). In Bent (1997), the film’s exploration of homosexuality forces us to bear witness to an act of mutual masturbation between two male prisoners in their last days.

Nazerman is presented with the offer of a girl (Krishna Kaur Khalsa) who flashes her breasts to Nazerman, contrasted in shock cuts to the abuse of Nazerman’s wife. She describes herself as “real good”, wanting to sell her body for $20 to a pawnbroker. Though her offer is sexual, neither the situation nor Nazerman’s backstory are: Nazerman is disinterested in sexuality, his objects of affection long since dead. Nazerman places her coat over her, unable to bear the image of her naked breasts. As Mark Harris documents in Scenes from a Revolution, the film was rejected by every studio because of this scene, with Lumet refusing to provide a “protection shot”; Lumet appealed the rejection of the film and exempted the film from the Code as “a special and unique case”, creating what Harris describes as an “untenable loophole”. However, for Lyons, the “Jewish body is a vulnerable body”, a faith defined by the senses and bodily experience.

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The offer of prostitution in the film to Nazerman is notorious in the history of the Production Code

By reflecting the bars of the pawnshop upon Nazerman’s face, cinematographer Boris Kaufman (reinforcing his legacy beyond his siblings, Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman) communicates the continuation of Nazerman’s imprisonment: although Nazerman is no longer consigned to state institutionalised death, he remains imprisoned, within the walls of the pawnshops and the limitations of his self, mind and body. Burnett Guffey had achieved the masterful visual image of confinement and entrapment of the repetition of shadows of lines against the face and body in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), but The Pawnbroker extends this imagery outside of the prison but into other spaces.

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Cinematographer Boris Kaufman uses shadow to convey Nazerman’s feeling of imprisonment within himself

The Holocaust is not an inactive past relegated to history, but it remains living memory, even as the volume of testimony amounts to more than can be consumed within one lifetime. Poland’s recent introduction of a Holocaust law, although with a partial U-turn, emphasises how these events continue to be politicised and their perceptions are in flux, with theories of Holocaust denial continuing to be peddled online, in print and within politicians. Anti-Semitism continues to be active, both in memes and imagery and in shocking attacks and murders like the death of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll back in March. Genocide is not historical, but contemporary, from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990s, and the genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar today by the country’s Buddhist majority. Across the Gaza Strip, in particular towards the Jewish faith, the settlement between Israelis and Palestinians has been met by decades of conflict and death.

Back in 2012, with a school party, I walked upon the stones and soil of Auschwitz Birkenau that millions were murdered upon; where millions, if not billions, have visited in the decades since. Back then, I lit a memorial candle but I did not cry. In 2014 and 2017, I visited the house the Frank family hid within in Amsterdam. But today, my sorrow would be too great to contain at the inhumanity.

Philadelphia (1993), dir. Jonathan Demme

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The strength of Philadelphia is its confrontation of how discrimination (homophobia, sexism, racism) manifests: in gestures, actions and words, even when these prejudices are unconscious. Homophobia becomes seen as a set of enacted practices: a fear of AIDS, or a fear of male desire for one’s own (male) body, fear in the sauna and locker room, fear of sex itself. It’s easy to dismiss homophobia as not a “phobia” as such; it’s not as easy to visualise as, say arachnophobia, or claustrophobia, or agoraphobia. These prejudices are part and parcel with the attitudes of Wheeler’s legal firm, that fires Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) on paper because of his poor performance in a recent suit over mislaid paperwork, but in reality because of his sexuality and contraction of AIDS. “Ethnic” earrings are not “American”, causing African American defence lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to chuckle. The firm, deflecting each question with their own well-spoken legalese, asks how they can be discriminatory when their harassing staff place a single African American and a woman in positions of power within their male-dominated staff, but the constructed and rehearsed nature of their character assassination of Miller as incompetent and workmanlike becomes painfully obvious. There’s an irony to Philadelphia: Beckett, as a lawyer himself, must act not as an attorney but, in bringing a case against his former employers, as a defendant represented by Joe Miller. Beckett’s immune system might be powerless, but as a figure and as a defendant he remains powerful.

The courtroom drama is no stranger to cinema, from Scandal (1950) to 12 Angry Men (1957) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or the animal rights documentary Unlocking the Cage (2016). Each film follows the same basic structure of witnessing justice, truth and individual freedom and liberty prevail, whether the focus is on juror, judge, lawyer or witness. For Philadelphia, the defence is built around both sexuality and disability, but it could easily be about the culture of workplace sexual harassment (Disclosure (1994)), or the freedom of the press, or racial identity. (Most esoterically, A Matter of Life and Death (1945) stages the courtroom drama in Heaven itself.) Though the courtroom drama might seem like it lacks dramatic potential, confined to one space for an extended period of time, Demme maintains interest throughout with a commitment to the film’s visual style and shot choices, the film’s cinematography and performances, and its wonderful score by Howard Shore (and headed by songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young that only emerged late in the game.) Even Demme’s use of time is economical and efficient, delivering the most important scenes in the narrative and skipping past days, weeks and months at a time; we don’t need to see Beckett’s long wait until the trial occurs.

In the past 25 years, Philadelphia hasn’t become irrelevant. The only things that might have been dated is the presentation of Miller as a fag-hating, “how do they do it, it’s gross!” homophobe, lashing out in a store during the trial at a man who tries to hit on him. Miller’s response is reprehensible, but there’s also a degree of box checking identity: because Miller is representing a homosexual, already a well-known figure through his television advertisements, Miller must obviously be homosexual; he cannot have a wife, and cannot just be an African American lawyer (or, indeed just a lawyer, with the character originally written as Italian and with no efforts made to change his character to fit Washington per the documentary People Like Us: Making Philadelphia (2003).) Miller remains redeemable, undergoing a journey of understanding the humanity of Hanks’ Andrew Beckett; Miller can hold these contradictory beliefs and still defend him in court. With his endearing and defining quirks (“talk to me like I’m a four year old”) and his outbursts when the time is necessary, Miller, even as a homophobe, remains likeable. At points, Miller feels like more of a (heterosexual) audience identification figure than Beckett, with the viewer assumed to share some of these prejudices, but the film is open to counter readings. In a civic sense, Philadelphia is incredibly empowering: a fight against workplace discrimination and the corporate twisting of the truth that, astoundingly, wins, with Beckett awarded millions in damages. The importance isn’t that Beckett barely lives past the winning of his suit; the part that matters is he won the suit (and by extension setting a legal precedent.)

Demme creates a strong sense of both intersectionality and solidarity, appealing to an everyman-like sense of universality. Even Miller getting his blood tested is an act of solidarity. Indeed, Miller’s position as a lawyer is inherited from the African American fight for civil rights only decades earlier. Demme’s films are no stranger to these subjects: although The Silence of the Lambs (1991) courted, like Philadelphia, backlash and protest against its femininity, queerness and transness, films like Married to the Mob (1988) address other unfair prejudices, allowing us to explore Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer)’s agency after her mob boss husband is assassinated as they share a bathtub together, with Angela forced both to defend herself against sexism and objectification, and support herself in her apartment.The Jamaican hairdresser that eventually employs Angela allows insight into how insidious racism is, with the hairdresser profiled by police and threatened with deportation.

By working with AIDS sufferers as extras and in speaking parts, and by featuring figures such as Quentin Crisp, Philadelphia never feels diluted. Demme drew upon friends he had lost to AIDS, and maintained the HIV-positive casting of Bob Seidman (Ron Vawter). Philadelphia is a defence not only of the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole, but of the friends and family of the film’s cast and crew that were afflicted or had perished. Yes, Beckett’s boyfriend Miguel Álvarez (Antonio Banderas, having worked beforehand largely in Spanish language roles under Pedro Almodóvar) is marginalised, but his love for Beckett never doesn’t feel real. Their final embrace as Beckett’s friends and family say goodbye in the hospital is heartbreaking. Philadelphia might not be as incendiary as underground and independent cinema, or the work of queer writers and journalists immediately responding to the crisis. It never reaches the same points of genuine pain and mortality or exploration of religious theology as Angels in America (1991-92), however Philadelphia still demystifies the rampant misconceptions and makes an appeal towards humanity. It isn’t the ridiculous narrative and fear of films like The Cure (1995).

In the documentary One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave (1994), produced by Demme and included on the Blu-ray (notably, its titles share the same font used in the opening of Philadelphia, and shares some of the same cast), we witness the piercing and depressing reality of the AIDS crisis, filmed on videotape in the Dolly Madison room of the hospital. The image is rough, but we hear the images and voices and humour that sustains afflicted men in their last days: their philosophies, ideas about sexuality, beliefs about Heaven. The closing credits are tragic, with half of the documentary’s subjects too short lives memorialised. Though the AIDS crisis continued to be addressed in film, television, theatre and literature (David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013) notably forms a Greek chorus dialogue between the past of the epidemic and the more liberal present), Philadelphia stands out because it was produced during the crisis, able to both reflect the times and influence them. Survivors today from the heart of the crisis are incredulous, surviving when there was no expectation they would, having lost friends and partners, as a 2016 profile of San Fransisco residents illuminates.

In Philadelphia, Miller makes the case to the jury that sexuality and homosexuality doesn’t matter. As he leaves the courtroom, a television anchor asks Beckett about his sexuality, to which he remains proud. But it also matters at the same time. There’s great sadness in the image of protestors lined up outside the courtroom, proclaiming “ADAM AND STEVE” and “GAY: GOT AIDS YET?”, protesting the very existence and denouncing a dying man’s life as sinful. There’s a disgusting assumption of hierarchy: the contraction of AIDS through blood transfusions is acceptable (the irony is, many parts of the world still won’t allow “men who have sex with men” to give blood because of the crisis anyway), but it’s Beckett’s fault. It’s Beckett’s fault for being gay; his fault for going to porn theaters, his fault for choosing to have sex.

It’s not his fault.

Tom Hanks, fresh off his earlier roles in films like Big (1988), The ‘Burbs (1989) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and before the breakthrough of Forrest Gump (1994), might seem like another case of casting a straight Hollywood actor over a gay actor. But what can be more gay than the daring recontextualisation of the military uniforms Beckett and Álvarez wear as they dance and embrace at a costume party? The lesions on Beckett’s face act as a visual signifier of his rejection from society as a social pariah and the plague. Even in the library, as he looks for a legal case to build against his employers, the librarian, standing over him, never speaking, never moving until he gets the hint, cannot shake his discomfort and the discomfort within the room, quietly suggesting Beckett moves to the reading room. He stands his ground.

Like the myth itself – that HIV spreads through the air we breath and through any kind of context – the film’s environment hangs these prejudices within the air these characters breathe. Hanks does a good job at embodying this character physically and through make-up as his condition worsens, though it can never be as terrifying as within a real sufferer. Ultimately, we know Hanks as an actor will survive. But the message of AIDS is it can happen to anybody: whether Rock Hudson or your next door neighbour.

Demme, as ever, is interested in character, but still has his own flourishes. We watch Miller’s life reduced to objects and video cassettes of home movies, staring out in montage to the words of Neil Young: a life of great immensity, replayed in front of us, truly understating the great tragedy of dying young from AIDS. (Ironically, in light of The Silence of the Lambs, Miller’s newborn daughter is named Clarice.) Philadelphia’s defining cinematic image might remain forever the underdog empowerment of masculinity, Rocky (1976), enshrined in a bronze statue besides the iconic steps; The Philadelphia Story (1940) is ostensibly about Philadelphia, but its images are largely limited to the illustrations of the city in the opening credits. But Philadelphia might well be the great Philadelphia story even when it doesn’t go to great lengths to showcase the Liberty Bell or other landmarks (although the Founding Fathers are mentioned.) Demme is interested in Philadelphia as an idea, as we see in the opening montage of the city and in the Streets of Philadelphia music video (directed alongside his nephew and filmmaker Ted Demme).

AIDS is still a major issue, especially within underfunded and unsupported African American communities. We still need to teach the truths of sexual health and how these illnesses spread, and emphasise the pain caused even when there is medication like PrEP and a solution.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991), dir. Jonathan Demme

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NOTE: this review was written on November 21st 2017. I would also highly recommend this piece for a continued discussed of the film’s trans themes.

the silence of the lambs has two central thematic devices: the moth and cannibalism, the moth a central image to the promotional campaigns and the cinematography throughout

transition is but emergence from a cocoon: after a few days, you’ll emerge. a change. a transformation.

cannibalism goes hand in hand with a sense of bodily disgust: naked corpses that are our laura palmers; our own relationship with blood and the human body (and genitalia)

just as the crying game used the concept of a woman with a penis for shock value around the same time, ‘the silence of the lambs’ has a sense of trans villainy. ‘the silence of the lambs’ might have been hit with backlash from the gay community at the time, but that’s not it, from the director who would go on to direct philadelphia only a few years later. hannibal‘s fan community would embrace its queerness. buffalo bill can seem a camp archetype at times: she moves around draped in femininity, applying make-up in extreme close-up

her identity is questioned: transvestite and transsexual are constantly conflated (before ‘transgender’ became the dominant word within discourse), as though they are the same. clarice questions this association between being trans and being violent

(met some gay friends dressed in drag the other night. though there’s trans peeps who do drag, it isn’t the same thing)

(of course, being trans is to be subject to violence: my gender presentation depends upon spaces, I cannot bring myself to wear a skirt anywhere alone, or at night, for fear of harassment. it was tdor yesterday; trans suicides and murders and hate crime are far too common)

she isn’t trans; she’s just pretending. it’s just become a part of her now because she’s believed it for so long. she was abused as a child. she’s a serial killer. it’s just another part of her motive

(i cannot find a label. they/them is in my bio. she/her floats around in my head. it feels unnatural. he/him feels awkward. am I non-binary, genderqueer, questioning or just definitely not male?

(maybe i’m just pretending. it’s just being feminine. it’s to fit in with all my other trans and non-binary friends.

(first i was bi. then i was cis gay. then i was andro. then i was grey. then i was ace. then i am???????

(i’m spiralling. i have no clear direction. a voice in my head keeps coming back, telling me to kill myself. i can’t do it any longer. i’m exhausted. maybe i’ve questioned myself too much.

(maybe i wasn’t abused as a child, but i’m still a victim of abuse and sexual violence.)

demme is interested in the physicality of transition, right down to its central metaphor: buffalo bill must embody the bodies of cis women, taking their skins as her own. she’s a patchwork; she goes to three different gender clinics for reassignment surgery, but she isn’t actually trans. apparently

(transition is difficult; transition isn’t necessary. transition is social; transition takes years. transition requires waiting lists and shit doctors and shitty laws. maybe transitioning by murdering people isn’t such a bad idea after all)

in a dramatic reveal, buffalo bill emerges naked, her pierced nipples and lack of penis creating a subversion of gender. to her concept, she’s an embodiment of masculinity, built upon the mythology of westerns. as the ‘male’ villain of a ‘male’ genre, it carries through

gender and sexuality become of two halves: there’s a phallic threat of violence to her; the fbi questions the fact none of the women appear to have been raped after three days held captive and mutilated, post mortem. but her dialogue suggests a sexual anticipation

buffalo bill must adapt to cis society: presenting as male as she opens the door, unable to reveal her true self

maybe there’s a trans serial killer out there whose story is waiting to be told, but within a cinematic landscape where transness is embodied by the phallic (and psychological) duality become male and female identity in ‘dressed to kill’, or more sympathetically as an aspect within the bank robbery to afford transition within ‘dog day afternoon’, maybe awesome positive trans protags could be a start

demme has a progressiveness to him: though anthony hopkins’ hannibal might be the focus of the film’s cultural impact, jodie foster’s clarice is the protagonist, and excels. she’s a victim to male threat: the semen thrown at her in the prison, the leering comments of coworkers who sexualise her whilst underestimating her competency both as a woman and as a student. the film’s ancillary characters are female: not only in clarice’s interaction with other women, but in the film’s female victims, and the power of a female senator

to 1991, the silence of the lambs is feminist. but is it still feminist to 2017? the camera rests upon its men too often. though ‘the silence of the lambs’ doesn’t treat female bodies and rape like ‘wind river’, it remains a female corpse. clarice can see herself in these women: she must fight against buffalo bill for her own sakes and her own survival

(is the trans woman once more placed as an extension of male violence? as the leering rapist and stranger we must protect against with bathroom bills?)

as a thriller and horror film, the silence of the lambs is often far too conventional. there’s iconic scenes, but demme isn’t radical. his narrative and structure never transcend

sometimes, i try to forget the times films are problematic. forgive it and accept the entertainment; accept the escapism. but sometimes, it’s too difficult. i cannot watch ‘the silence of the lambs’ and forget

Backwards & in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film (2017) by Alicia Malone

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Alicia Malone has been one of my favourite film people since I was first introduced to her in an interview with her on Criterion Now. Malone’s passion for cinema easily comes across in her role as an interviewer, the segments she hosts for TCM, FilmStruck, and the videos she posts to her YouTube channel. The strength of Malone’s segments is her joy, contextual knowledge and her ability to use the stories of personal lives and production that entices the viewer to watch more great films more deeply.

The book’s title comes from a 1988 keynote by Texas Governor Ann Richards that Malone uses as her epigraph, and is perhaps revealing to the plight of women both in the film industry, politics, and every other area of life:

Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.

Backwards & in Heels has many familiar stories within it, profiling early female filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blanché and Lois Weber, silent stars like Mary Pickford,  the stars of screwball comedies and ‘women’s pictures’, like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, mythologised sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe, New Hollywood icons like Jane Fonda, through to the present day with figures still working with Meryl Streep and Octavia Spencer, and more recent directors such as Ava DuVernay. Although far from comprehensive, without an interest in women within the global film industry (although some international talent is mentioned in passing), Malone provides a strong series of empowering biographies (some a couple of pages, some closer to ten) written in an accessible way that encourages the reader to both read and watch more.

Many of the stories Malone tells are less familiar, remembering actresses and directors that might be less acknowledged, like with Hedy Lamarr, Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge or Ida Lupino. We learn of women who achieved far more for humanity and the world at large – and more intelligent – than we ever give credit for. Many of these stories have an element of tragedy: the marginalisation of actors of colour Hattie MacDaniel and Anna May Wong, even in the face of critical acclaim and major directors; the erasure of Rita Hayworth’s ethnic identity; the difficulty of Tangerine actress Mya Taylor to find positive trans roles, instead limited to prostitutes. There’s stories of women who lack agency or control, or were manipulated by men, or failed to get the due credit to support their careers. Hearing about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds after their passing still makes me so emotional. Malone hits her stride when she approaches the current era of filmmaking, addressing not only directors and actors but activists, producers, screenwriters, editors, cinematographers and so on, interviewing people like Rachel Morrison and Nicole Perlman that might be overlooked because of male directors overshadowing their contributions, but should instead be remembered for shaping the films as they are.

Although Malone doesn’t address narrative content so much, we need to consider how representation functions. Representation isn’t just made from depicting strong and empowered women on screen outside of sexist and misogynistic tropes, images and stereotypes, but in shifting the culture and placing women within creative positions to have an impact on how these stories are told.

With the most recent edition, Malone ties in the events of late 2017 and 2018, tackling the events following Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s The New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein and what this means for the film industry as a whole. As Malone concludes, “the only consistency [in Hollywood] is the struggle for women against discrimination, bias, sexual harassment, damaging stereotypes, and constant objectification”, with sexual assault “woven into the very fabric of the industry almost since the beginning.”

It’s a reminder that we need to support the work of female creatives (with films such as The Lure, Desert Hearts and Smithereens joining the largely male dominated Criterion Collection and FilmStruck), but also support journals like Another Gaze and cléo and the wide array of female critics out there – not only the historical voices of Pauline Kael or those still going (Molly Haskell, Amy Taubin) but modern voices today that include Malone, Angelica Jade Bastién, Kat EllingerLindsay Ellis, Sophie Monks Kaufman, Violet Lucca, Kim Morgan, Imogen Sara Smith and so many others.

Pandora’s Box (1929), dir. G.W. Pabst

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On a Sunday afternoon in early December, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Pandora’s Box at the Phoenix Cinema (not to be confused with Leicester’s Phoenix), with a live piano score by Stephen Horne. Alongside fellow silent film enthusiast and Conrad Veidt lover Max, Max had attended their showing of Häxan (1922) a month earlier, with live narration by Reece Shearsmith. As we took the train down amid the chaos of cancellations, we sat down to an ornately decorated screen, as though in the pre-digital age of decades ago, before physical film projection was usurped by bootleg VHS tapes, torrents, DVDs and streaming, the pillarbox screen the centre of attention amid the wooden seats. Critic Pamela Hutchinson provided a brief introduction to coincide with her BFI Film Classics monograph, outlining some of the initial negative critical responses.

Though Pabst can often be overlooked in Weimar Cinema, he tackled social issues throughout his silents and talkies against the emerging New Objectivity. Adapted from Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), Wedekind’s narratives had been translated to cinema before with Leopold Jessner’s 1923 film, but Pandora’s Box became captivating through the energies of Pabst and Louise Brooks.

Greek mythology surrounding Pandora’s box and our relationship with evil may be diluted by time’s passage, the symbolism of Pandora reappropriated as a Danish jewellery company and the planet of Avatar (2009). But Lulu (Louise Brooks) explores this imagery well, embodied within Brooks’ cinematic image. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), both Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were “conducting an investigation into [Pabst’s] relations with women”, interested in the “flaming reality” of “sexual hate.” In his insightful 1983 essay Lulu and the Meter Man, Thomas Elsaesser argues Wedekind explored the femme fatale, and associations of transgression, violation and desire through the social milieu of class division. Pandora’s Box confronts not only bourgeois values but the male power curtailing the freedom Lulu seeks. Lulu’s relationship with newspaper publisher Ludwig Schön is formed of convenience of social standing, alongside his engagement to the daughter of the Minister of the Interior, Charlotte von Zarnikow, caught between the power of the press, sexuality and the political elite. Lulu is an alluring temptress to male authority; Rodrigo Quast seeks to exploit Lulu as part of his trapeze act, with Pabst’s fast editing adopting theatricality as she dons her outfit, stunning the theatrical audience and the viewer themselves. Like the carnival freakshow of Freaks (1932), Lulu has a sexual and romantic identity of her own, beyond the dehumanising gaze placed upon her by accepted societal values.

Schön’s double-edged threat – forcing Lulu, with his gun, to stage her own suicide, is itself coercive, taking agency from her death away from her, an impossible choice captured in immaculate detail by Günther Krampf. As Schön becomes a victim of the very suicide threat he levelled, Lulu’s judicious process is tragic: in the trial, she is faced with five years for manslaughter, despite her victimhood. Framed in close-up, Pabst captures the emotion and power of the desperation of her tears, faced with a jury who never knew. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, Pabst had no “stock emotional responses”, but sought actors to reach emotion “like life itself”. As the fire alarm is set off as a cunning escape, Pabst captures the unfolding chaos wonderfully. Lulu isn’t far away from the feminist heroine Angela de Marco in Married to the Mob (1988): facing presumed guilt against her husband’s murder in the bathtub by a bullet, we witness structures of power against her, through her avoidance of cops and her biased interview. As Elsaesser argues, Brooks’ Lulu is presented “practically without origin, or particular cultural associations”, with sexual desire part of a “more generalized structure of exchange”; sexuality lacks emotional engagement, with sexual acts and Reichsmark holding equal value. J. Hoberman writes that Pabst sought to create a fractured sense of eroticism, wanting “men in the cast to feel Brooks’s skin and have the actress get under theirs.”

In Lulu’s adventure in London, Pabst makes Lulu’s presence against male power most explicit. The mythology of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) is buried within sensationalism of the press and tabloids and the police letter coining the killer’s name, enduring through the mystery of the ambiguity of his identity. The concept of the Ripper has a morality to it: a mutilator and murderer of prostitutes, attacking female sexuality in the slums and poverty of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly. Equally, the Ripper was formed against waves of Jewish and Irish immigration altering make-up and sentiment within 1890s London. The pervasiveness of representations border on the ridiculous: in film, the fictionalised killer of Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), the time travelling pursuer of H.G. Wells in Time After Time (1979), a frequent foil to Sherlock Holmes across mediums, and in comics, the Gotham-based serial killer of Gotham by Gaslight (1991) and its giallo fan film Ripper (2016), the subject of Alan Moore’s From Hell (1989-98), an alter ego to Mr. Hyde in Thunderbolts #167 and the foe of IDW’s Doctor Who comic story Ripper’s Curse (2011). As Hutchinson notes, “sexually motivated murders”, or “Lustmord“, “filled newspapers and narratives in 1920s Germany”, from ‘The Butcher of Hanover’ to the Ripper’s role in Waxworks (1924) and Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. The conflict between Lulu and the Ripper, her reflection and the Ripper’s knife – recalls Lulu’s previous use of the gun, returning to the paradigm between Lulu’s agency and victimhood. In the Christmas mistletoe, Pabst builds a remarkable sense of suspense, seeking the reveal of who moves first.

Louise Brooks will always be defined by her age: as the 21 year old actress in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, the disjuncture of seeing her graceful ageing in her latter years in Lulu in Berlin (1984) and Kenneth Tynan’s rediscovery in his New Yorker piece The Girl in the Black Helmet. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s eponymous 1991 song itself embraces the temporal disjuncture of “ghosts of long ago”:

And all the stars you kissed could never ease the pain

Still the grace remains, the face has changed

And you’re still the same

Having appeared in the avant-garde Denishawn troupe as a teenager and as a Broadway dancer, Brooks’ rising star emerged. As Hoberman notes, Pabst was inspired to cast Brooks after watching A Girl in Every Port (1928), attempting to borrow her from Paramount before she quit over a salary dispute. As German cinema fought against national boundaries, in a silent landscape supported by international coproductions and the universal language of the human face, American actress Louise Brooks could act alongside her German counterparts (with an Austrian director), a boundary that would continue to be stretched through the multilingual talkies that emerged, with a differently recorded version for each major market. Equally, as Siegfried Kracauer highlights in From Caligari to Hitler, the emergence of Kontingentfilme, or quota films, increased the distribution of foreign exports, with an increasing Americanization of Weimar cinema seeking to cater to American styles (1947:135).

Women in film are often underestimated, especially in melodrama, with “woman’s pictures” exploring women’s lives in deep, meaningful detail. With a handful of films, Brooks’ face joined the pantheons of women of early cinema, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, decades before Monroe rose to fame, in part through her interwar flapper design. Kracauer notes critics found Pabst “fundamentally wrong” in adapting a “literary play”, with characters serving to “illustrate principles” (1947:148). Lulu is not just a character, but a symbol of female morality and sexuality. As Elsaesser argues, Lulu’s lack of family ties, social obligations, education and culture, and her freedom from guilt and conscience, assigns her as a “construct, not a sociological portrait”. Lulu is but an alluring, unreadable cinematic face of ambiguity and mystique, to read onto how we wish. Designer Gottlieb Hesch drew a sharp visual dichotomy through the contrast of Lulu’s costumes, between the purity of her white dresses and the sinful darkness of her black dresses, taken to full advantage through the film’s monochrome locations and cinematography. In Asphalt, we follow another woman on the other side of the law: Else moves through Berlin’s urban criminal landscape in her need to survive, frequently interacting with police, using sex appeal to seduce men and explore her femininity just as Lulu did the same year.

Pandora’s Box carries illicit beauty as we witness the dance between Lulu and Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), continuing their motions despite leering male onlookers, a rebuke to male power. Decades later, the lesbian sexuality of Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), Carol (2015), The Handmaiden (2016), Thelma (2017) and the Black Mirror (2011-present) episode San Junipero remain rare delights as we deconstruct the fetishising and eroticising male gaze, the emaciated international form seeking to conceal these relationships. The boat’s gambling den becomes but another Weimar underworld, alongside the havens of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922) and crime and kangaroo courts of M (1931), and, as Elsaesser writes, a “fictional metaphor for the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic”, but the underworld connotes a distinctly queer connotation, only emphasised by the West German-era underworlds of Fox and His Friends (1975) and the Isherwood based Weimar-era underworld of Cabaret (1972); Dietrich’s bisexuality made her but another element within this underworld. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, her residence at the Eden Hotel gave her a firsthand look at Weimar Berlin’s decadence, highlighting “girls in boots, advertising flagellation”, “agents pimped for the ladies”, sportsmen arranging “orgies” and the drag queens outside Eldorado, and the “feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians” at the Maly.

But Pandora’s Box is as much about Berlin as fleeing Berlin. With her passport, Lulu flees alongside her best friend, Alwa Schön (Francis Lederer), in far from ideal, squalid conditions. Like the foundational directors, seeking greater profits who fled to Hollywood, like F.W. Murnau, E.A. Dupont and Ernst Lubitsch, or fled anti-Semitism, like Fritz Lang, or Nazi-era directors like Douglas Sirk, or child refugees like Mike Nichols, without mentioning actors like Conrad Veidt, experienced dislocation from the country they were raised and born in amid developing tensions, adopting the United States as an inherited home. Dr. Mabuse der Spieler conveyed an international heist, but under the auspices of organised crime. Alwa and Lulu flee the country with urgency, emerging in Christmastime London that cannot escape Lulu’s inevitable fate, even amid the festive goodwill of Christmas puddings, window displays, gifts, snow and the marching Salvation Army. Posters, echoing the citywide search of M, warn of a criminal on the loose. Brooks was American, but in the following years, the Weimar cinema followed an inevitable collapse and migration. As Hutchinson argues, “geography carries crucial meaning”, highlighting Wedekind’s and Brooks’ own stays in London.

Günther Krampf’s immaculate visions have a tendency to be burned into cultural memory with his iconic image of the creeping shadow of Nosferatu (1922), but Krampf’s incredible eye is no stranger here either, illuminating in light the sinister London fog, prefiguring the film noir and its own femme fatales. Stephen Horne’s score provided a great compliment, integrating atmosphere, sounds of the train and fragments of Christmas carols within his piano performance. Like the greatest of live scores, Horne elevated the film he performed against to a place of beauty.