Say the words out loud: alpha—delta—omicron. Add whatever variant(s) have emerged since this article’s deadline. Greek-alphabet letters, recited like a chant, singsong, may sound like a nursery rhyme. “Ring around the Rosie,” perhaps: the song about the London plague of 1665, or 1347, or perhaps earlier or later, or somewhere else, its words recorded, they say, in 1881.
All fall down indeed. In the world of cinema in early 2022, it was the film festivals that were falling down. Rotterdam was the first to cancel. Then, Palm Springs. Sundance was still holding on, with determined signals of a physical presence along with an expanded online platform, until just two weeks before showtime when omicron exploded and the in-person Utah festival folded: online only it would have to be. The Berlinale moved its market online but confirmed its intention to hold in-person screenings (at press time anyway).
Suddenly, the hopeful summer of live festivals (Telluride!) was a distant memory, the anxious autumn (New York!) a faraway treasure, though the Saudis managed to stage a cultural splash, the Red Sea International Festival, in December. Back home, grounded, film curators without live audiences, filmmakers with closed sets, distributors with few outlets, professors with no students in classrooms, grounded scholars without a conference bar, Oscar voters with home screens and laptops—and this editor, with a new digital projector—all sought a route out of despair. Often that was a screening, temporarily acceptable with the aid of vaccination proofs or rapid tests, but more likely it was online, with “content” that algorithms and menus offered. By January, movie theaters were still open, but I knew few people over the age of forty willing to enter them.
Into this moment blasted . . . not a comet, but a movie about one (and yes, “comet” shares its first two letters with that other five-letter word dominating all life on earth). Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021) is lucky, as “a new-school streaming entity, blessed with optimal COVID-surge timing. Millions who were interested a month ago to see something in a theater now, once again, find themselves back on the couch.”1
Based on a story McKay developed with journalist David Sirota, it was conceived before but shot during pandemic times, and released just in time for Christmas by Paramount and Netflix. Ah, if only good intentions were everything. This is a movie ostensibly about politics, science, and climate change that comes closer than most to communicating the full horrors of twenty-first century feudalism, corruption, greed, and ignorance (but not, incidentally, climate change) yet is undermined by its splashy multiplex-focused stylistic choices. Even Forbes took notice of the disparity between scientist appreciation and film-critic deprecation.2
Any impulse to praise is canceled out by McKay’s decision to script the sleazy corrupt president as a woman (Meryl Streep, no less). This colossal misstep throws the entire enterprise into the “ha ha, just kidding” wastebasket. Was it Bernie backer McKay’s final revenge against Hillary or a botched attempt to imagine Ivanka there? Either way, to assign the classic misogynist and corrupt traits of Trumpian alpha males to a female character was an insulting misfire.
Leonardo DiCaprio is convincing as a nerdy professor happy to sell out for celebrity and glamour (making me curious about the script changes he supposedly demanded). Jennifer Lawrence is spectacular as the whistleblower undone by her own discovery. Rob Morgan, however, is handed the thankless role of NASA’s Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, a Black man so divorced from community and selfhood that he is never seen in the company of Black family or friends or partner, and chooses to see the world end cosseted in whiteness in Lansing, Michigan.3
Don’t Look Up is a film trapped between political ambitions and genre fidelity. McKay just can’t help himself: given the choice, he opts for the easy laugh every time. With one exception. Mark Rylance’s character, Peter Isherwell, the gazillionaire head of the tech company BASH, is one part Elon Musk, one part Mark Zuckerberg, one part Peter Thiel, with a dash of Jared Kushner thrown in for good measure. This fascist figure is a thoroughly chilling embodiment of today’s technofuturist overlords and deserves to be reincarnated immediately in a future McKay script aimed squarely at technocrats’ control of human lives. Watching the film in the midst of the Elizabeth Holmes trial (again, with a woman standing in for the unprosecuted but equally corrupt male royalty of Silicon Valley) lent it extra frisson.
A CNN headline interrupted: “The COVID-19 Case Surge Is Altering Daily Life across the US. Things Will Likely Get Worse, Experts Warn.” I was still trying to write this editorial. Back home in California, climate change continued to gain momentum. “Many Stinson Beach Homes Could Be Flooded amid Rising Seas within a Decade. Would Building Dunes Save Them?” read another headline.4 Dan Fruchtman, the owner of an A-frame on the beach, was quoted as saying, “The Earth is so fragile. It’s a shame what we’ve done to it.” McKay, though, never really addresses climate change; instead, his film is lodged squarely in the “disaster movie” genre of The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972) or the sci-fi hybrid Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981), with its villains updated and the whole world implicated.
The theme of an uninhabitable earth, though, summons memories of another film: Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013), about a world rendered uninhabitable by a botched climate experiment, leaving the remains of humanity to circle the globe in a perpetual-motion train divided by class. Based in part on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige (1982), by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer was reborn as an ongoing episodic series (TNT, 2020–). I first saw the film in New York City at a private screening organized by Tilda Swinton. She was trying to drum up support for Bong Joon Ho’s vision as the film was being held hostage by its distributor, the Weinstein Company, where Harvey was demanding cuts. Ah, history.
It’s worth remembering that in the movie theaters of yesteryear there was once Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), a chilling parable of infertility and global collapse—set, alarmingly, in 2027, now just five years away. And playing right now on a streaming platform near you is Station Eleven, the phenomenal new series based on Emily St. John Mandel’s eponymous book that eerily imagined a world wiped out by a viral epidemic, its feral survivors roaming the earth years later. Yes, it could be a moment for dystopian viewing—for a public with a strong stomach and steady nerves. Soylent Green, anyone?
In December 2021, Film Quarterly presented a webinar saluting the Pacific Film Archive on its fiftieth anniversary; it turned at one point to the question of in-person screenings for nontheatrical as well as first-run, after a year of streaming platforms custom-built for this sector. MoMA’s Rajendra Roy reported on the museum’s reopening of its theaters, acknowledging his surprise that the audience was substantially younger.5 He observed that older patrons were more reluctant to return to the risk of in-person gatherings. I wonder, too, whether younger cineastes have become more motivated to engage in communal activity—in classic establishment locations, no less—than they had been in prepandemic times. And if that summer/fall exuberance would survive omicron winter.
Traditional distributors—that is, those without wholly owned production/streaming monopolies—greeted the new year with a seemingly contrarian decision.6 They decided to turn the clock back and restore the theatrical window (forty-five days, most often) and permit hopefully lucrative ticket sales to run their course in advance of online availability.7 Wonder how that will go. The studios’ calculation was perhaps a reactive move following Scarlett Johansson’s widely reported courtroom success (reportedly a $40 million settlement) after she sued Disney for releasing Black Widow (Cate Shortland, 2021) online on Disney+ on the same date it opened in theaters. And notice that it was the star who sued, not the director; presumably, it was her lucrative contract tied to theatrical revenues that was shredded by the day-and-date move. The studio calculations will undoubtedly shape-shift again over the course of 2022.
As platforms evolve, it’s always important to remember that the classic ones are still in existence and bear scrutiny. Public television, for instance. Way back in March 2021, the very month that lockdown started, fifteen filmmaker members of the Beyond Inclusion collective together with more than one hundred thirty cosignatories, including Stanley Nelson, Laura Poitras, Yance Ford, and other prominent figures from across the documentary field, sent an open letter to PBS (the Public Broadcasting System) demanding diversity.8 The letter in particular called out the system’s cozy funding relationship with Ken Burns, to whom PBS has funneled substantial sums of money (for more than two hundred hours of PBS programming over forty years) far beyond anything that has been awarded to projects by filmmakers of color, long consigned to far more modest levels of support.9 PBS defended Ken Burns, and Ken Burns defended PBS, and they all agreed they could do better.
Not so simple, PBS! Data, please! Filmmaker Grace Lee, one of the Beyond Inclusion signatories, teamed up with reporter-filmmaker Akintunde Ahmad to launch a podcast with a purpose: Viewers Like Us, its title a riff on public television’s own motto.10 In seven episodes that ran from September to the end of December 2021, with Lee as executive producer along with co–executive producers Ken Ikeda of the Association of Independents in Radio and Joaquin Alvarado of Studiotobe, the podcast offered up testimonies from a range of social actors with a stake in public television’s future and a commitment to the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion.11 Their podcast question hung in the air, unanswered: “Why is PBS so white and how exactly did it designate Ken Burns as America’s Storyteller?”12
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Paris, where this text was written, cinemas were still open. They flourished all through fall and early winter 2021, their marquees and posters providing a welcome sense of normalcy; with omicron rates rising by the day, though, it was becoming harder to see how that could continue. Posh screening invitations continued to pile up, restaurant reservations were still being made, but a dampening of spirits was undeniable, even out in the streets, as I tested the crowds like an anxious flâneuse who is out of practice.
As cinema events began to feel risky, and with more in-person cancellations being announced, I found myself drawn instead to the presence of films in other spaces: exhibited in museums, installed in galleries, with lots of air and space, high ceilings, and (hopefully) less dense crowds. Major shows beckoned with their alternative modes of viewing and public display.13
First up was the promising Enfin le cinéma! Arts, images et spectacles en France (1833–1907) (Cinema at last! Arts, pictures, and shows in France [1833–1907]) at the Musée d’Orsay, organized in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), France’s National Center for Cinema and Moving Images (CNC), Gaumont, and Pathé, and curated by Dominique Païni, former Pompidou director and former head of the Cinémathèque française (who reportedly oversaw its move to the dismal Frank Gehry building in Bercy on his watch). With gallery after gallery in the immense Orsay filled with paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the didactic exhibition sought to retrace the origins of cinema and the mutuality of influence between painting, photography, and cinema. Infuriatingly, however, the fascination was entirely with the precinematic materials; the many screens hung throughout the galleries, stamped in the corner with the telltale “L” for Lumière, were left not only uncontextualized but entirely unidentified and bereft of texts.
The public, absent any curatorial assistance, was presumably expected to make its own leap of imagination to link the images on the walls to those on the screens, or else to buy the giant catalogue when exiting through the gift shop to figure out the details ex post facto. True, anyone patient enough to stand in front of any one screen long enough for the digital loop to come full circle (not that long, of course, with those early Lumières) would be rewarded when finally the title appeared and a date flashed by, but that was it: no context, no history, no linkages to the images surrounding the screens. I was dismayed that an exhibition ostensibly dedicated to uncovering cinema’s beginnings would turn the medium itself into mere decoration.
Off, then, to the newly reopened Musée Carnavalet, dedicated to the history of the city of Paris, where a new exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marcel Proust was under way. It was a natural location: the Carnavalet had long been a pilgrimage site for Proustians because of its gallery containing the furnishings of his actual bedroom, complete with the (posthumously revealed as gay) author’s actual bed. Now, like Orsay’s, its exhibition sought to re-create yesteryear—here, the times of Proust (1871–1922) by definition also a fabled era of Paris.
Where the Orsay texts were promulgating a philosophy of visual influences, Carnavalet was content to offer up artifacts and facts, photographs and maps, filling in the one extraordinary life. For cinephiles, Proust is a sort of origin text, his writing having inspired Volker Schlöndorff’s Un amour de Swann (Swann in Love, 1984), Raúl Ruiz’s Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999), and Chantal Akerman’s La captive (The Captive, 2000).14 Madeleines, indeed. And, freed of any purity impulses, the exhibition included archival footage, again on hanging screens, along with monitors that intrigued with period interviews, such as one of Jean Cocteau talking about Proust, clips from films, and a wealth of information and reflection. I was happier, and just as edified.
Ten blocks away, the Marian Goodman Gallery was completely given over to installations by Chantal Akerman. The multiple-screen From the Other Side—an epic installation adapted from her film De l’autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002), her look at the Mexican border and the harsh life of migrants, filmed two decades before their lives and crossings got significantly worse—filled two rooms with monitors, then extended into another room with a single and singular projection: A Voice in the Desert, an excerpt which Akerman had refilmed during the shoot in a desert projection. Upstairs, more modestly in terms of scope, Je, tu, il, elle, l’installation (2007) presented a three-screen redeployment of her film made more than thirty years earlier, when she was in her early twenties, Je tu il elle (1974). With its three sequential chapters now lined up simultaneously, the impossible innocence and youth of the young Chantal filled the screen.
Free of the didacticism and explanations of the two museums, the visitor here could wander, immersed in the multiplicity of images and shifts of scale, like a flâneuse in the gallery space itself. Later in January, there was a conference on Akerman: “The Affective Interiors of Chantal Akerman: Aesthetic Passages - Films and Installations,” organized by the Cinema and Audiovisual Studies Research Institute (IRCAV, at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3). Just over six years since Akerman’s death, her work is more alive than ever.
At press time, a wonderful volume arrived in the post. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s delirious fever dream of a film, Memoria (2021), starring Tilda Swinton, has been commemorated with a gorgeous art book of the same name, edited by Giovanni Machini Camia and Annabel Brady-Brown, published by Berlin’s Fireflies Press. A compendium of photographs and documents related to the film’s production, from early sketchbooks and notes to the shooting script and an interview with Swinton, its editors describe it as “a work of curation.” I would call it an archive. A remarkable record of Weerasethakul’s working methods over the two years of the film’s development and through its production, it reveals (among hundreds of other details) that Swinton’s character Jessica, a woman adrift in Bogotá and the Colombian countryside, was conceived as a character straight out of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943).
What to say? As the year 2021 increased the names of the dearly departed to an unbearable extent, Film Quarterly sought to keep pace, at least a bit. Then December 2021 came along. The mortalities of the last month of last year and first week of this one raised the stakes, crushingly, and words have failed me. No tributes this time, sorry—just a list of names to pause, grieve, and salute.
I knew bell hooks in New York City in the eighties, when she was out and about, on the scene, publishing nonstop, prowling and energizing everyone and everything she came across, stirring up all the best kinds of trouble, challenging the powers that be, never one to sit calmly in the corner and behave. And she loved to engage with film, claiming a place at the table, claiming and declaiming the films of the moment in a New York downtown scene where independent cinema mattered and where the new young black cinema was bubbling to life. There was nobody else like her; there never will be.
In This Issue
Diana Flores Ruíz considers the works of filmmaker Sky Hopinka, a Ho-Chunk Nation national and descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, through the lens of Indigenous cultural theory. Tracing his reinvention of representational traditions to create an Indigenous visuality cleansed of settler vision and conceived in conjunction with its own communities, Flores Ruíz shows how Hopinka insists on a collective connection that crosses modalities, mediums, and finally, with the establishment of the COUSIN collective, even authorship. Expert at unpacking meanings embedded in the work and at bringing her own theoretical knowledge to bear, Flores Ruíz ensures that Hopinka’s visions are properly understood.
Cáel M. Keegan advances trans theory by delving into the past. As a theoretical resurrectionist, he revisits the disdained objects of film history to reconsider their transgressions and invert earlier judgments in favor of a capacious value system devised to combat the limitations of even a trans-positive landscape. Rejecting the efficacy of today’s “good” trans images, he instead presents a case for the “bad trans object” through readings of Tootsie, It’s Pat, and The Assignment. Keegan thus constructs a counterhistory of stigma and redemption, utilizing Lauren Berlant’s influential notion of “silly” objects for a rebalancing of the scales of influence and identity.
Examining the meanings coded into Pedro Almodóvar’s Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers), Carla Marcantonio brings insider knowledge to bear on the director’s efforts over the years to fuse the punchy, melodramatic personal narratives of his films with the often suppressed political history of Spain itself. The era of La Movida that followed Franco’s reign is always credited as the crucible of Almodóvar’s aesthetic brio, but it turns out that generational trauma has never been all that far away. Marcantonio unpacks the meanings bundled into the Parallel Mothers misidentification plot and discovers that Almodóvar has cracked open melodrama to create a space for admitting the sins of the past: the massacres of the Franco regime.
This issue features two interviews with filmmakers at very different stages of their careers, one in the United States and one in France, as they reflect on their early careers.
To mark the fortieth anniversary of the landmark independent film Chan Is Missing (1982), Oliver Wang contributes a wide-ranging conversation with Wayne Wang. Tracing the filmmaker’s evolution from Hong Kong would-be engineer to impassioned California filmmaker, he manages to uncover not only the surprising evolution of Wayne Wang’s original ideas for Chan (as an Eisensteinian montage) but also a view of the dynamism of San Francisco’s Chinatown itself. It was there that the young filmmaker taught at the Language Center, as his students seeded ideas for the characters he was writing. Wayne Wang is drawn gradually into memories he’d long set aside: a wondrous time for an early independent cinema and a city still full of possibility.
Joan Dupont, filing from Paris, as always, shines a light on the career of the film director Pascale Ferran, best known in the United States for Lady Chatterley (2006), her passionate rendition of the D.H. Lawrence novel, but with significant films to her credit both before and after. Today, Ferran heads up the French initiative for a sort of filmmakers’ cinematheque: LaCinetek, an online video-on-demand platform that she helped to launch. With Dupont, she discusses her influences (Alain Resnais, Edward Yang), her formation at the French film school IDHEC (now La Fémis) and the lifelong friendships it spawned, her fruitful early collaborations with the prestige French television channel Arte, and her recent excursion into the episodic world with Le bureau.
FQ columnists continue to inspire.
Bilal Qureshi examines standards of diversity as applied to films and filmmakers in current release at a time of “wokeness” in film reviewing, and looks especially at the charges of Islamophobia against Dune and the Benneton aspirations of Eternals, analyzing personal responses to both that run counter to crowd verdicts. With Passing, he applauds bolder choices that move beyond checklists to assess the value of the filmmaking. Sorting out standards and precedents leads Qureshi to call for the implementation of a more nuanced Critical Representation Theory for cinema.
Manuel Betancourt discerns in Jonathan Perel’s Responsabilidad empresarial (Corporate Accountability, 2021) a pivot from responsibility to accountability, deeming it a central moment in Latin American documentary that “asks more of its audience than intermittent gasps and knowing nods . . . accountability demands more of them. More than just their attention, that is.” Referencing such recent works as Natalia Almada’s Sundance-awarded Users, Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Una película de policías (A Cop Movie), and Rodrigo Reyes’s 499, Betancourt argues for moving beyond witnessing as a documentary dictum.
Rebecca Wanzo takes up Scenes from a Marriage (both Ingmar Bergman’s film and Hagai Levi’s new series) to consider the status of the remake and the history of “marriage-dissolution narratives” in general. Examining a range of examples, from Adam’s Rib to Kramer vs. Kramer to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, she considers the workings of genre and the persistence of power relations despite continual gestures toward so-called progress. And finds, surprisingly, that Bergman himself may well have made a remake in the first place.
Leading off the books section, Page Views editor Bruno Guaraná talks with historian Ross Melnick about his new book, Hollywood’s Embassies: How Movie Theaters Projected American Power around the World. In the massive research that Melnick conducted, Guaraná finds histories of Hollywood’s global reach and the cycles of embrace and resistance that accompanied its expansion around the world, not merely on screens but in physical structures. Melnick sees the movie palaces as akin to US embassies, communicating soft power—of romance, American “democracy,” and, not incidentally, air-conditioning.
The book reviews begin with a longer essay by Rosalind Galt on Eugenie Brinkema’s Life-Destroying Diagrams and “its case for radical formalism.” Markus Nornes takes up a set of edited collections that signal a new era in Japanese cinema studies: The Japanese Cinema Book (Hideaki Fujiki and Alastair Phillips), the Routledge Handbook of Japanese Cinema (Joanne Bernardi and Shota T. Ogawa), and A Companion to Japanese Cinema (David Desser). The reviews that follow are exciting for their considerations of current scholarship. Caetlin Benson-Allott unpacks David Church’s Post-Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation, Brian Hu reads David C. Oh’s Whitewashing the Movies: Asian Erasure and White Subjectivity in U.S. Film Culture, Mikki Kressbach takes up Adam Nocek’s Molecular Capture: The Animation of Biology, and Maggie Roberts examines Fatimah Tobing Rony’s How Do We Look? Resisting Visual Biopolitics. Filled with multiple directions and original contributions, these reviews also mark a transition: book editor Carla Marcantonio takes leave of FQ with this issue. Her look at Almodóvar in this same issue, though, gives hope that she won’t be far away.
Michael Phillips, “‘Don’t Look Up’ Commentary: I Appreciate the Message. Here’s Why I Don’t Like the Messenger,” Chicago Tribune, January 5, 2022, www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/michael-phillips/sc-ent-dont-look-up-commentary-phillips-0105-20220105-xg74oau4c5fp5gkww47ulcx2by-story.html?
David Vetter, “Why Sneering Critics Dislike Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up,’ but Climate Scientists Love It,” Forbes, December 28, 2021, https://forbes.com/sites/davidrvetter/2021/12/28/why-sneering-critics-dislike-netflixs-dont-look-up-but-climate-scientists-love-it/?sh=4fe1f16c2ee8.
The film makes a big deal out of pointing out that the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, the division that Morgan’s character heads, is a “real agency.” For proof, see www.nasa.gov/planetarydefense.
Julie Johnson, “Many Stinson Beach Homes Could Be Flooded amid Rising Seas within a Decade. Would Building Dunes Save Them?” San Francisco Chronicle, January 2, 2022.
I moderated the webinar Film Culture: The Legacy of the Pacific Film Archive and Non-Profit Exhibition with panelists Kathy Geritz (BAMPFA), Josslyn Luckett (New York University), Cornelius Moore (California Newsreel), Rajendra Roy (MoMA), and David Schwartz (Netflix). For a recording, see https://filmquarterly.org/2021/12/07/webinar-film-culture-the-legacy-of-the-pacific-film-archive-and-non-profit-exhibition/.
For an incisive update on movie monopolization, see Patricia Aufderheide, “Don’t Let Amazon Eat the Film Industry,” New York Times, October 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/03/opinion/amazon-antitrust-movies.html.
Alexandra Canal, “Theatre-Only Shift ‘Speaks Volumes’ for Box Office As Studios Abandon Hybrid Streaming Model,” Yahoo! Finance, December 30, 2021, https://finance.yahoo.com/news/theatrical-only-shift-speaks-volumes-for-box-office-as-studios-abandon-hybrid-streaming-model-170306763.html.
See www.bipocmakers.com/. The letter explicitly references an earlier essay, “Grace Lee on More Than One Lens,” at www.fordfoundation.org/campaigns/creative-futures/?popup=14807.
Reid Nakamura, “More Than 130 BIPOC Filmmakers Call Out PBS for ‘Over-Reliance’ on Ken Burns,” The Wrap, March 31, 2021, www.thewrap.com/pbs-ken-burns-bipoc-filmmakers-open-letter/.
Matthew Carey, “Filmmaker Grace Lee Ramps Up Critique of PBS over Diversity, Ken Burns Ties, with Podcast ‘Viewers Like Us,’” Deadline, October 14, 2021, https://deadline.com/2021/10/viewers-like-us-podcast-executive-producer-grace-lee-ken-ikeda-geeta-gandbhir-interview-news-1234856103/.
In the future, FQ hopes to explore Sarah Maldoror: Tricontinental Cinema, the new Palais de Tokyo retrospective of the French Guadeloupean filmmaker (1929–2020), who is best known for Sambizanga (1972). This is the first major exhibition dedicated to her work.
For an assessment, see Peter Bradshaw, “Remembrance of Things Past: Marcel Proust on Film,” The Guardian, November 7, 2013, www.theguardian.com/film/2013/nov/07/remembrance-past-marcel-proust-on-film.