I’m listening, I’m taking notes, and it’s up to me, afterwards, to synthesize.
You’re going to synthesize? Boy, are you lucky. Indeed, draw out of this whatever you can.
– Jacques Lacan
Every other Tuesday from October 1 - December 10, I went to Anthology Film Archives to watch a program of short films curated by Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner. My endurance began to flag after the midway point, so I have fewer notes to work from regarding the latter programs. Consequently, there’s more fabrication happening in my responses dated November 12 and December 10. I missed November 26 entirely because I was out of town, but I was able to watch a few of those films online.
The Flaherty and Anthology Film Archives are wonderful institutions.
That covers the preliminaries.
REFUSE & REFUSAL: ANTI-AUTHORITARIAN & AVANT-GARDIST INTERVENTIONS (OCTOBER 1)
Or, Real Suffusion: Aha! Nadir Situation & Vagrant Artist Invert Tension
For Joachim Gatti (Jean-Marie Straub, 2009: 3 min.)
A filmmaker expresses rage over police brutality that cost another filmmaker his eye without really making a film. Cop some inspiration: When you’re 76, express rage by painting the word FILM on a brick and lobbing it into a police car.
Garbage (New York Newsreel, 1968: 10 min.)
NYN filmed Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers discussing and executing an action during which they collected trash from the streets of the LES during a sanitation strike and dumped it in front of Lincoln Center. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more effective to collect trash from Lincoln Center and dump it on the streets of the LES.
Ausfegen (Joseph Beuys & Jurgen Boch, 1972: 26 min.)
Anticipating the OWS clean-up of Zuccotti Park, Beuys and two of his students stay behind with a red-bristled broom, a snow shovel, and some plastic bags as a May Day rally moves on down Karl Marx Straße. Conspicuous and suspicious that Beuys is always in control of the broom, the students trade off between shovel and bag duty. Of course, Beuys dumps the trash in a gallery and places the broom just so. Not a bad work of art, but he was tardy. Three years earlier, Mierle Laderman Ukeles (now artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation since 1977) wrote a proposal for an exhibition, Care, Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! I can imagine Ukeles cleaning up the gallery the day after Beuys’ show closed. “The sourball of every revolution: After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”
Isle of Flowers (Jorge Furtado, 1989: 12 min.) ☻
I agree with Chris Marker (or an apocryphal Marker): This is a masterpiece. Best didactic film I’ve ever seen. “This is not a fictional film. There really is a place called the Isle of Flowers. There is no God.” The narrator defines a series of objects (e.g., money, perfume, a human being) in an act of gratuitous explanation that aims to shatter assumptions about violent economic processes hidden in plain sight. The film addresses race, genocide, carnism, exchange value, abuse value, and extreme poverty. The matter-of-fact tone of the narration puts some distance between the viewer and the images, which makes it all the more crushing when the finale collapses that distance utterly.
The Land Belongs to Those Who Work It (Chiapas Media Project, 2005: 15 min.)
Documentary of a meeting between Zapatistas and government officials. The officials are downright diffident, but it’s clear the Zapatistas know what’s up: The government wants to relocate them in order to free the land up for development as an eco-tourism site. The disagreement is irresolvable; the meeting is an elaborate ritual, a theatrical production that changes squat politically. (Can you hear the cynic-critic decrying film in the same terms? Do you descry the splash as trash falls in the fountain?)
Expulsion from Paradise (Andrey Ustinov & Natalya Nikolaeva, 2002: 2.5 min.)
A couple of pranksters strip naked inside a McDonald’s in St. Petersburg. They walk around poaching fries from customers before the cops eject them. Mixed messages, but here’s the real one: No one in the world needs to go hungry — there’s enough food for everyone — but some people in the world need to go hungry if we want to make this shit economy bullish!
FALSEHOOD & NONRECONCILIATION: UNDOING HISTORIES (OCTOBER 15)
Or, Incline Fool’s Head & Coronation: Outshined Origins
SSKIM: Talking to the Dead (Soon-Mi Yoo, 2004: 35 min.)
An investigation of Korean involvement in the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. I don’t remember much of this one. Strange to say, then, that it was affecting, but it was.
What Farocki Taught (Jill Godmilow, 1997: 30 min.)
Contains a shot-for-shot English-language Kodachrome remake of Harun Farocki’s 1969 film Inextinguishable Fire, which addressed the complicity of scientists and Dow Chemical Co. managers in waging war on Vietnam. Godmilow’s film would be great if it were merely a remake, but instead she calls attention to her project by appearing in a postscript interview. Falls flat after the last scene of Farocki’s film: A man stands in a white-tiled bathroom and explains that he’s an engineer working in a vacuum-cleaner factory. He takes a part home every night, but when he tries to assemble the vacuum cleaner for his wife, he ends up making an automatic rifle. After a cut, the same man explains that he works in the factory as a student. He suspects that he’s building parts of automatic rifles, but when he tries to assemble a rifle at home, he ends up making a vacuum cleaner.
Crisis & Critique (Per-Oskar Leu, 2012: 28 min.) ☻
A brilliant collage of a recording of Bertolt Brecht’s testimony before the Committee on Un-American Activities, some framing exposition, and excerpts from 1930s and 40s German films. (For a list, see Triple Canopy. It isn’t complete, though; they’ve forgotten to include one of the most powerful appropriations: the totally fucked “Der Feuhrer’s Face,” also known as “Donald Duck in Nutzi Land.”) Crisis & Critique is a deft exploration of the relation of the artist to the production of history and what we call historical events.
THE PERMANENT DISSIDENT: ŽELIMIR ŽILNIK (OCTOBER 29) ☺
Or, My New Favorite Filmmaker: Želimir Žilnik
Black Film (Žilnik, 1971: 14 min.) ☻
This is the best documentary film I’ve ever seen. Žilnik picks up several homeless men in the middle of the night and brings them back to his home. The next day, he goes about trying to get help solving the problem of homelessness. He asks various residents of Novi Sad what he should do with the homeless men in his apartment. No one has a good answer. Running low on film, Žilnik shows his guests the door. Elegant, darkly funny, and damning.
Inventory (Žilnik, 1975: 9 min.)
The residents of an apartment in Munich line up in the stairwell and address the camera one by one. Mostly immigrants, the participants talk or attempt to talk a bit about themselves, how they like Germany (most are having a hard time), and what their plans for the future are. Elegant and poignant.
Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time (Žilnik, 1994: 43 min.)
An actor dresses up as Tito and walks around the streets of Belgrade in 1994. A crowd follows him, eager to reminisce, condemn, plead, applaud, and so forth. Everyone knows what the score was, yet their feelings about Tito remain starkly contradictory. Elegant and damn funny.
The Old School of Capitalism (excerpt) (Žilnik, 2012: 20 min.)
Hard to write about this having seen only an excerpt. This narrative film employs anarchists to play principled anarcho-syndicalists and steelworkers to play conned steelworkers. The degree to which it’s more complicated than the earlier films is the degree to which I like it less. I’m not comfortable with having written that.
STATES OF EXCEPTION, EXCEPTIONAL STATES: THE IRON GRIP OF NATIONALISM (NOVEMBER 12)
Or, Softest Peace Toxin, Coexistent Palates: Rot Insomnia Hate Profiling
A Plate of Sardines (Omar Amiralay, 1997: 17 min.)
A reflection on film — its uses and uselessness — in relation to the destruction of an entire village. Amiralay tells a story about asking an older relative about the plate of sardines he always found on the table at her house.
The Food Chain (Ariella Azoulay, 2002: 17 min.) ☻
The filmmaker asks Israeli officials and a British aid worker whether there’s hunger in Palestine. The answers are beyond belief. Punctuated by shots of a group of blindfolded women wrapped in blankets, seated in a field singing an unsettling, repetitive song. It becomes clear that humanitarianism is an official ideology that justifies the abuse of Palestinians. Aid is big business: the business of whitewashing massive oppression. Language is revealed as terribly powerful.
Hezreallah (Yann Beauvais, 2006: 48 sec.)
A Flood in Baath Country (Omar Amiralay, 2003: 46 min.)
Amiralay returns to the setting of his first film, the Tabqa Dam, built by Assad during modernization. The region is a backwater, a still. Schoolchildren recite revolutionary slogans, train for party membership. A tribal leader in office for decades recounts his national career. An incredible portrait of the upper Euphrates.
VIOLENCE OF THE IMAGE: THE CRISIS OF REPRESENTATION (NOVEMBER 26)
Or, Elegiac Voices After Refinement: Histories’ Photon
Under Underground (Viera Cakanyova, 2006: 18 min.)
SLA Screed #16 (Sharon Hayes, 2002: 10 min.)
Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement, Year Zero (Iranian Women & Women of the Political & Psychoanalytic Group, 1979: 12.5 min.)
Requiem for M (Kiri Dalena, 2010: 7 min.)
A simple, beautiful requiem for those killed in the Maguindanao massacre. It begins with a harrowed woman (the filmmaker?) holding a camera, raging. Rent and racked, she curses greed for money and lust for power. After a fade, the film replays scenes from funerals in reverse.
Satyagraha (Jacques Perconte, 2009: 5 min.) ☻
A brief, terrifying film. Glitchy, hell-colored footage of mob actions, voice-overs of Indian men and women speaking about the necessity of hatred and violence in a post-Gandhi India.
A Non-Capitalist Cinema: SIKKIM (excerpt) (Jesal Kapadia, 2013: 13 min.)
14.3 Seconds (John Greyson, 2008: 9 min.)
Only eight scraps of film were salvaged from the National Film Archives in Baghdad after U.S. planes bombed it. Greyson uses the 14.3 extant fragments of Iraqi film history to construct several plots. A testament to the cultural damages of war.
Prison Arabic in 50 Days (John Greyson, 2013: 4.5 min.)
Greyson flips through vocabulary cards he made while detained without charges in an Egyptian prison. Palestinian-Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani speaks each word or phrase in Arabic. Greyson repeats them inaccurately.
LIVE LIKE A REFUGEE: ON THE BORDER (DECEMBER 10)
Or, Elevate Foreign: Beheld Euro Irk
NOW (Santiago Alvarez, 1965: 6 min.) ☻
One hundred percent CLASSIC. The most rousing film, the most inspiring. Images and video from the Civil Rights struggle with Lena Horne singing “Now!” to a jazzy rendition of “Hava Nagila.” You can’t do better than this: “The message of this song’s not subtle/ No discussion, no rebuttal/ We want more than just a promise/ Say goodbye to Uncle Thomas.” Compare my favorite passage from a book I don’t particularly like, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street: “We’re tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We’re tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists. We’re tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We’re tired of hearing the politicians and priests and cautious reformers (and the husbands!) coax us, ‘Be calm! Be patient! Wait! We have the plans for a Utopia already made; just give us a bit more time and we’ll produce it; trust us; we’re wiser than you.’ For ten thousand years they’ve said that. We want our Utopia NOW — and we’re going to try our hands at it. All we want is — everything for all of us! For every housewife and every longshoreman and every Hindu nationalist and every teacher. We want everything. We shatn’t get it. So we shatn’t ever be content […].’”
STILL (Laura Waddington, 2009: 7 min.)
A bad cover of Santiago Alvarez’s NOW.
Ils nous tuernont tous (Sylvain George, 2009: 10 min.)
Dark film of migrants near the Calais harbor being arrested by cops. Camera shooting through fences, witnessing the round-up of outcast men in the dead of night. Fair play in the Evening Country, the West.
AAC303847E (Xose Quiroga, 2012: 3 min.)
The filmmaker burns his passport at the Immigrant Detention Center in Barcelona in protest after a Guinean citizen, Idrissa Diallo, dies there. As a gesture: appropriate and admirable. As a life decision: regrettable because not sufficiently effective?
Border (Laura Waddington, 2004: 27 min.)
A quiet, ill-lit poem. Waddington spends many nights with Afghan and Iraqi refugees in a camp in Sangatte, France. She films always from outside the camp, crouched down in the fields with men and women and boys and girls she’s befriended who try, night after night, to escape the camp and cross over, somehow, to England. French citizens drive past on a nearby road, without regard. Disappearances abounding.
N’entre pas sans violence dans la nuit (Sylvain George, 2005–08: 20 min.)
A Paris neighborhood revolts for a day, at least. African immigrants fed up with police harassment and an impossibly drawn-out naturalization process seize public space and beat back cops with bottles and battle cries. Invigorating, but then what happens?
Vers Madrid: The Final Newsreel (excerpt) (Sylvain George, 2013: 15 min.)
Students and others organize in Madrid to protest economic injustice. An older man sings passionately and badly about the bourgeois avant-garde. Similarly insufferable problems, similarly insufficient responses.
My Synthesis (January 14)
While not unconscious of the fact that in championing a cause which today is in little esteem because it is not in harmony with prevalent custom, and opposed to popular prejudices, the writer feels that his feet are planted upon a truth which, as Sir John Herschel said of all truth, is capable of “enduring the test of universal experience,” and which, when the false theories which now oppose it have crumbled into the sand of which they are composed, will be found standing like a rock of adamant “among the wrecks of time.”
– John Harvey Kellogg
What they used to call the revolution was a well-intentioned precursor to the future sweetheart of the everyday. After the day’s work, let’s pick up the pieces and inspect them. Let’s put only the pieces we need back into the day’s work until the work disappears, or we do, in a flash of light.