Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Fond Memory of Peter Kubelka and Film Students

It is no doubt an understatement to say that preconceptions always get in the way of clear perception. What is more: it is painfully obvious. Yet we fall victim to it over and over. Even when we think we come to a new experience with an open mind, we end up falling back on old assumptions to make sense of things. This is an especially harmful attitude to bring to a work of art. Art demands the individual’s willingness to change; it addresses one’s capacity for new ways of thinking. The old road maps one typically uses to navigate through life will only get in the way here.

I have watched Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise in three separate experimental film courses, and each time the subsequent discussion has digressed into a condemnation of the white Austrian filmmaker’s portrayal of the indigenous Africans as animals. We can all agree that Kubelka’s film demonstrates the barbarity of tourist violence against animals, and for this we applaud him. However, we fault him for his indifferent, somewhat exoticized and fetishistic photography which seems to treat as equal subject material the African and the African animals. This always annoyed me, and I was relieved to find, in the discussion that followed the film the last time I saw it, an African student willing to argue against the consensus opinion. After several white students expressed their anger at Kubelka’s insensitivity and his failure to break from the colonialist mentality he is ostensibly critiquing, the one African raised her hand and gently suggested that her white, American peers had missed the point. Kubelka does not equate African people with African animals, she suggested, rather he demonstrates Western expansionist culture, by way of the Austrian tourists in the film, does not make a meaningful distinction between the animals they hunt and the people who serve them while they do it. What happens next is one of those precious moments in life, the kind of occurrence that would be totally unbelievable if it did not happen every day. She was ignored. How amazing! How momentously condescending, ironic and stupid all at once! The sensitive, post modern, hip white people have judged Unsere Afrikareise to be racist, and no black, African girl is going to tell them different.

I love this story as an example of the tendency toward self-righteous, hypocritical political correctness that so many people bring to art these days. They not only assume that Peter Kubelka has a responsibility to present everyone’s perspective evenly and fairly, they also want their desire to see those qualifications met to be easily satisfied. In other words it’s no good if Peter Kubelka really is on our side if he arranges his material in such a way that we can’t understand that to be true. James Benning addresses this in an interview with Scott MacDonald about his early films:

I was trying to experiment, and if you’re experimenting, by definition, you don’t communicate with a large audience. I thought it was rather silly to try to put political issues into an esoteric context. If you’re trying to make political changes, you should use the language that is easiest to understand (231).

Here Benning points toward something that a lot college kids (or, for that matter, more sophisticated viewers such as teachers and critics) do not consider when they watch Unsere Afrikareise, Kubelka does not have message. While I am unwilling to go as far as Kubelka himself, who says that he could have made this film with any images, I will agree with him that violence against animals and the treatment of Africans by Euro-tourists do not constitute the primary concern of this film. The film is about structure, and the subject is, I believe assumed. It is wrong to kill animals for sport and to abuse natives for cheap labor. This simple truth, however, is not fodder enough for an artist. Showing that the bad guys are wrong is Spielberg’s project. Kubelka aims higher; he digs deeper. He wants to effect the viewer’s perception. He does not care about politics as such.

The aim of such care-less filmmaking is further extrapolated by Benning, “If you look at things different aesthetically, maybe you’ll look at things differently politically” (231). When Kubelka says that he is trying to drag us out of the Stone Age, this is what he is talking about. But we like the Stone Age. We like our morality and our ethics to be simple, either/or choices between right and wrong.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Long Live Cinema!

I have been looking over some books by Jonathan Rosenbaum. It has been a while since I read MOVIES WARS or ESSENTIAL CINEMA, and I was again stuck by this "death of cinema" notion. I have run into this subject at Ray Carney's website as well as a number of other places, and I would like to say something about it.

Is the cinema really dead?

Cinema has only been around for about 100 years. How can it be dead already? Perhaps we could spend the next fifty years or so just dealing with the works of Tarkovsky, Bresson and Ozu, before we bury cinema. Yes, each of us wants to deliver the cleverest and most heartbreaking eulogy, but let us wait just a little longer, at least until we figure out those three geniuses. Can any medium ever die? How can the theater be dead if some company somewhere is performing Shakespeare? Can the novel be dead if you have War and Peace, Absalom, Absalom!, and Wings of the Dove sitting on your bookshelf? It comes as little surprise that the voices announcing the death of cinema never mention that there are no more Tarkovskys, Bressons or Ozus in their laments. There are two kinds of writers that think the medium is finished, and both have paid little if any attention to the filmmakers listed above.

The mainstream reviewers, the hacks that serve as a pseudo-intellectual branch of promotional machinery for Hollywood, complain that Hollywood stars are not glamorous anymore. Tom Hanks is no Clark Gable. Jennifer Lopez is not Rita Hayworth and so forth. Movies are boring, predictable and no fun.The other group presents a more serious problem, because they are the academics and reviewers of art films. These are baby-boomers who miss the good old days of the public consumption of intellectual cinema like that of Godard and Bergman.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has done much to dispel the myth of this phenomenon.
For my part, I shall only add that that these critics never understood art in the first place. If they think movies are supposed to be intellectual they probably pronounced Bergman dead when he stopped making ponderous metaphysical allegories like Seventh Seal to pursue the human drama of Scenes from a Marriage.

It is true that there are no decent art house directors these days like Antonioni, Fellini, Godard or Bergman; they have been supplanted by mediocrities like Soderberg and Todd Solondz or popular left-wing cultural critics like Michael Moore. This means only that the bar has been lowered to achieve the status of a fashionable filmmaker.

We must also remember that as wonderful as Bergman and Antonioni are, they are lesser artist than Bresson and Ozu who were never fashionable. The difference today is that the gap between Antonioni and Ozu is not as wide as that between Soderberg, and for instance Tsai Ming-Liang. There are filmmakers on the caliber if Fellini and Bergman working today, they just aren’t popular. There are even a few on par with Tarkovsky and Dreyer, and they are even less well known.

In no particular order, here some great artists who work in this dead medium, every one of whom is alive and making movies or very recently deceased:

Theo Angelopoulos
Chantal Akerman
Abbas Kiarostami
Mohsen Makmahlbaf
Dardenne Brothers
Pedro Almodovar
Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Zhang Yimou
Ousman Sembene
Idrissa Sissako
Edward Yang
Wong Kar-Wai
Jim Jarmusch
Lars Von Trier
Harmony Korine
Werner Herzog
Alexander Sokurov
Jafar Panahi
Tsai Ming-Liang
Su Friedrich
Jay Rosenblatt
Bela Tarr
Takeshi Kitano
Kim Ki-Duk
Guy Maddin
Olivier Assayas
Atom Egoyan
Mike Leigh
David O. Russell
Ken Loach
Charles Burnett
Gillian Armstrong
Chris Marker
Andrew Bujalski
Duplass Brothers
William Greaves
Arnaud Desplechin

I would suggest the following additional bit of perspective on this list. Most film critics only write about film. In addition to film, I write a great deal about literature and a bit about painting, dance and performance art. I bring up my other areas of scholarship only to point out that it would be impossible for me to come up with a list of writers, painters or choreographers that is comparable to the above list of filmmakers. To take the example of literature, there are not 30 writers alive today who are as important in the history of literature as are these filmmakers in the history of film. Let me keep it short and demonstrative. Kiarostami, Leigh, Ackerman, Tsai and Angelopoulos are some of the greatest filmmakers ever, easily ranking alongside Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Bresson and Ozu. Are there any living novelists who are comparable to Henry James, Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky or Faulkner?

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Heads up to the four people who look at this site: I have moved the more forcefully polemical content of this blog to a whole new blog spot! It is called The Contrarian and you can find it at In the future I will attempt to devote this page to saying more positive things about good movies, saving my ire for the overrated and outright stupid for the new page. Please check it out.