That’s me on the extreme right, next to my new boss at the time, Richard Combs. The address is 81 Dean Street, the main headquarters at the time of the British Film Institute. I’d started my new job there as assistant editor of Monthly Film Bulletin on August 5, working under Richard, and had joined the staff’s trades union, ASTMS, around the same time. But only a week or so later, after the National Film Archive’s acting curator, Kevin Gough-Yates, was summarily sacked, I attended my first union meeting, and seconded the motion that we go on strike to protest management’s refusal to follow proper procedures.
Our strike lasted a couple of weeks, and, as I recall, it was mainly successful. For me, it was an ideal way to get to know many of my fellow staffers at the BFI, and I also successfully collared Otto Preminger, emerging from an editing studio next door, where he was working on Rosebud, to sign our petition. (I had watched a morning’s shoot on Rosebud in Paris a month or so earlier and had been part of Preminger’s lunch party, so he remembered me.) According to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith in The British Film Institute, the government and film culture, 1933-2000, a recent book from Manchester University Press that he coedited and partially wrote (which is where this photo comes from), “Preminger sent a message from his suite at the Dorchester Hotel”. Maybe so, but that isn’t the way I remember it. I also remember that it was less fun when Richard and I went down to the National Film Theatre on the South Bank in order to try to persuade various patrons not to attend an ongoing Raoul Walsh retrospective — something we would have liked to have attended ourselves.
Geoffrey’s account, however, matches my own memory more precisely when he reports that “Vanessa Redgrave turned up on [our] picket line to canvass for the Trotskyite group the Workers’ Revolutionary Party which was solidly embedded in the film and television industries.” (I also recall that we ignored her suggestion that we skirmish with the London police in order to gain more headlines.) He’s also right to remember that Colin McArthur, the Communist head of Film Availability Services, crossed our picket line while quoting (if I remember it rightly) Lenin. Meanwhile, Penelope Houston, the editor of Sight and Sound, who wasn’t in the union, kindly came downstairs every day to deliver the mail to her own assistant, David Wilson, who headed our union, as well as to Richard and me. [2/19/13]
My 30th “En Movimiento” column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as the Spanish Cahiers du Cinema, written in late January, 2013. — J.R.
The debates about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty in the United States have been substantial. Critical positions have ranged from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s measured defense at mubi.com/notebook/posts to Steve Coll’s attack in The New York Review of Books (to cite two of the less hysterical and more intelligent responses), and have only been exacerbated by the five Academy Award nominations the film has received. When I finally saw the film myself, it was apparent that part of the controversy derived from a certain ambiguity in the film’s depiction of torture, made all the more ambiguous by the filmmakers’ misleading and mainly unconvincing claims of political neutrality — a battle still being waged in the February issue of Sight and Sound, where Nick James, the editor of that English monthly, begs to differ with the negative judgments of two of his writers towards the film, even though he concedes that Bigelow’s naïve contention that “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge” has only helped to confuse matters. I agree with James that the climactic killing of Osama bin Laden registers largely as a hollow and morally dubious victory, but I also believe that the film’s commercially motivated attempt to be circumspect about its overall critical position makes it easy to misinterpret.
Another part of the problem, I would argue, stems from a poisonous climate that has avoided any detailed, serious discussion of the morality and/or the efficacy of torture until or unless it’s tied to the promotion of a high-profile commercial feature, when it suddenly becomes too important to ignore. As obscene as this unacknowledged policy is, it has arguably ruled the suppression of serious public discourse about a good many other important topics, and it’s important to add that the level of most discussions involving war in the U.S. already tend to be rather primitive. Referring to “good guys” and “bad guys” in international disputes may sound like the jargon and concepts of ten-year-old boys, but in fact these terms are used seriously and without irony by grown-up presidential candidates who are treated by the media as wise, mature, and sophisticated.
The consequence of de facto censorship of serious discussions about torture in the public sphere tends to be confused, overheated, and often incoherent discussions that emerge later, as if to compensate for all the preceding silence. And to some extent, the same absurd situation applies to the discussions of slavery in the 19th century that have been recently been inspired by Django Unchained. Because the object for sale in this case is Tarantino’s film and not Richard Fleischer’s 1975 Mandingo (one of its principal sources), there has been a tendency in the media to dismiss the earlier and far more substantial film as trash, even though the principal (indeed, sometimes the only) historical question discussed in reviews is whether or not “Mandingo fighting” — fatal Roman-style combats between slaves — actually existed.
Meanwhile, such basic questions as how a slave could become an expert marksman, learn how to read, or wear sunglasses get overlooked, and there’s an amusing tendency among some of the partisans of Django Unchained, including Tarantino himself, to oscillate repeatedly between the alibi of “it’s only a movie” to the confident and contradictory claim that this movie offers important moral instruction regarding the evils of slavery, thereby justifying the latest version of Tarantino’s obsession with revenge fantasies. For those like myself who consider these simplistic and tribal revenge fantasies to be “good guy”/”bad guy” video games for ten-year-old boys — given a second life since the 1970s by the Star Wars films and ultimately encouraging such actions as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — the pre-eminence of action movies over any independent discussion of their subjects is a frightening phenomenon.
Written for the February 2013 issue of Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, as one of my bimonthly columns for that magazine (”En movimiento”). It continues to amaze me how American movies who preach the inescapable inevitability of corruption in American life — Citizen Kane, The Godfather films, and now Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty — are invariably regarded as more profound and much likelier to wind up as Oscar fodder than those that are less resigned to accepting corruption. — J.R.
Two inordinately praised big-studio releases of the holiday season, Lincoln and Argo, seem to depend in part on the innocence of the American audience in order to score their ideological successes. The first of these, a high-minded art movie, starts with a familiar subject, while the second –- which, I must confess, I’ve only sampled — incorporates the relative unfamiliarity of Iranian culture as part of its action-thriller mechanics. That both films have been overpraised seems hard to dispute; “Long after its commercial run, Lincoln will remain an invaluable teaching tool,” Joe Morgenstern declared characteristically in the Wall Street Journal, while Rex Reed, no less typically in the New York Observer, called Argo, “A movie that defines perfection. It has tension, sincerity, mystery, artistic responsibility, entertainment value and a thrilling respect for the tradition of how to tell a story with maximum impact.”
Every American knows or thinks he knows something about Abraham Lincoln, so part of the sleight of hand of Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner is to combine what’s already known and assumed with an updated, revisionist Lincoln — a benign Machiavellian wheeler-dealer that complements the Good Nazi proposed by Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List by suggesting that capitalist conniving and deception can be redeemed by compassionate, humanitarian goals. That this role model is depicted in the midst of high-contrast allegorical cinematography in which darkness represents slavery and bright light represents emancipation — expedient substitutes, at least if one considers that actual slavery and emancipation are strategically missing from the film — apparently doesn’t interfere in the slightest with Lincoln as a teaching tool, at least if one wants to teach capitalism and its virtues rather than history per se. And the best way to teach capitalist virtues, of course, is to pretend that one is teaching history.
In a comparable fashion, the CIA’s rescue of six Americans from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 is a subject that apparently can be “understood” only from the vantage point of American entertainment. Many Iranian-American commentators have already complained about the diverse historical distortions and bogus facts about Iran used by Ben Affleck and his writer Chris Terrero, only two of which I want to point out here — the suggestion that the Shah’s wife bathed in milk while the Shah had his lunches flown in by Concorde from Paris. Admittedly, both of these absurd claims are cited only as rumors, just after the 1952 coup d’état by the U.S. and Great Britain that deposed the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh (and which, to the credit of Argo, is cited as fact, not as rumor). But the milk bathing nevertheless gets a full comic-strip illustration, in both black and white and color, during a comic-strip history of Iran that opens the film.
A far more notable as well as verifiable activity of the Shah’s wife was the founding in the 1960s of Kanun — the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults that occasioned and even necessitated the introduction of Abbas Kiarostami to filmmaking. It’s more notable and verifiable, but also far less functional, even useless, when one wants to recount a comic-strip history and employ thriller mechanics, which is what Affleck needs for his own story. And the coup d’état, which is much more important to the history of Iran, doesn’t qualify for quite as memorable a comic-strip illustration either.
Mark Cousins, who recently objected to Argo’s dehumanizing stereotypes of Iran, also made the fifteen-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which broadens mainstream definitions of cinema by giving Africa, Asia, and the Middle East more prominence. But when he’s covering experimental film, Cousins clearly finds Matthew Barney more important than either Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow. In short, when it comes to distorting history for mainstream clarity, he joins Spielberg and Affleck.