Playtime

Tati, Taschen, 2019, edited by Alison Castle

|Tom Schroeder|

If one considers a movie as a window opening upon a discrete panorama of life, then Jacques Tati created perhaps the most wonderfully compelling view I know in his 1967 masterpiece Playtime.  He built“Tativille,” a small facsimile of modern Paris on the outskirts of actual Paris, in which he shot his uniquely stylized mime for three hundred and sixty-five days. On the surface, Playtime addresses a specific style of mid-twentieth-century architecture and the dehumanizing effects of such rigidly rectilinear buildings upon the inhabitants. But within these confining, malfunctioning spaces, Tati stages not one foreground narrative, but multiple layers of incidental action, in which characters are introduced with broad gestural strokes and then reappear later as their paths through the maze intertwine with those of others. In a film composed on widescreen 70mm and lacking close-ups that might direct our focus, Tati gives the viewer agency to direct their individual journey through his complicated tableau. And in this manner, Playtime also implicitly proposes a form of observation by which urban dwellers might transform their environment outside the theater through active visual play. In a bewildering contradiction, this film, constructed by means of an airtight artifice, ultimately represents life as it’s lived on the streets with a verisimilitude equivalent to the spontaneous films of the “Cinema Verite” and “Direct Cinema” movements. I’ve seen Playtime more often than any other film and the delightful method of Tati’s observation has made the transition fully from the movie theater into my daily life.

My introduction to Jacques Tati was Mr. Hulot’s Holiday in a college film club screening at Lawrence University in 1982. I recognized Mr. Hulot as a descendant of the silent-era, slapstick comedians and the gag structure of their movies. Tati modernized the genre, however, with expressive use of post-production sound design and surrounded the humor with an unusual atmosphere of detachment and mild melancholy. He held the audience at a distance from events, deemphasizing conventional narrative structure and emotional identification with the characters in the film.

A good example of a device that Tati repeated and refined throughout his career occurs when two characters greet each other in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. We see them initially in a medium range establishing shot, reaching to shake hands. Water suddenly spouts from a drainpipe at their feet and they spin, hand in hand, to avoid it. The film cuts on this movement to a much wider framing, the original motivation for the action now unreadable, and it appears to me that the two men are square dancing. There is a final spatial cut in which we see Mr. Hulot poke his head out of a skylight window like a gopher; he’s holding a water pan that he has just emptied and is thus identified as the unwitting author of the dance. By means of this calculated spatial remove, Tati abstracts behavior from the context of its recognizable social meaning and allows us to regard it with comic detachment.

I was introduced to Playtime in the late 1980s with my first wife Sayer, during the early days of our marriage. I don’t remember in which theater we watched it, although I do remember that we saw it projected on 35mm film. I initially responded to the strangely “sci-fi” art direction, the meticulous staging of architectural space, and the exaggerated post-production sound that reminded me of an animated film.  But Playtime ultimately didn’t depict the physical world for me as much as a state of mind, recognizable, yet formally contained. The represented space of the film belonged more to an imaginative ideal than it did to waking life; “Tativille,” too, existed in the mind.

Sayer and I were so impressed by Playtime that we checked out a VHS tape of the film at the public library a few days later and watched it again. We invited friends over to watch it with us a third time and I was surprised that some people found the film alienating. About ten minutes into the tape, a woman asked with a mixture of guilt and irritation, “Is something supposed to be happening?” I realized then how well-conditioned we are as movie-viewers to be guided by a protagonist through a single foreground story. I also understood that Playtime was uniquely designed for the large screen and that its full impact depended upon that scale; one needs to be visually absorbed in the film.

I’ve subsequently seen “Playtime” at least twenty times, most often in movie theaters. When the Trylon Microcinema last showed the film in February, 2018, I watched it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. I even travelled to Paris specifically to see a restored 70mm print in the fall of 2002. Tati’s film rewards repeated viewings because it is constructed Breughel-like, both in depth and laterally, in multiple layers that he intended us to investigate “democratically” at our own discretion. During the long Royal Garden restaurant scene, I can count sometimes five or six layers of character development within a single shot. The film is literally playtime for our eyes and ears as we follow these multiple threads through the “Tativille” set. Because of the overwhelming generosity of information in Playtime, it cannot be comprehended in one viewing (or two or six or ten, for that matter). With each screening the curious audience member, willing to accept their responsibility as the current director of Playtime, creates a particular experience of the world that Tati has invited us to enter. Even after twenty viewings, I’m still discovering new details in the mid and deep background layers of the film and I’m constantly impressed by the precision with which Tati handles the overlapping visual continuity.

Eventually, I learned that the experience of Playtime extends beyond the confines of the movie theater when I carried a similar framing of observation into the world outside; Tati ultimately teaches the audience his way of seeing the city as a performance. Film writer Jonathan Rosenbaum describes this education:

And, not surprisingly, I found I could apply this lesson more readily to Paris, with its outdoor café chairs that function as orchestra seating and the theatrical lighting of its streets at night. Playtime proposed a particularly euphoric form of reengagement with public space, suggesting ways of looking and finding connections, comic and otherwise, between supposedly disconnected street details—not to mention connections between those details and myself. (Rosenbaum, 2009)

This implication of the film’s power was clearly intentional. In the original script for Film Tati N˚ 4, the movie ends with a never-shot, bookend scene in the Orly airport:

At this point, all our characters are transformed into shadows whose figures are silhouetted against the uniform surface of the décor. This stylization only emphasizes their personality by emphasizing the different ways in which each puts on a hat or wears too tight or too loose a suit and their different ways of walking. These shadows, each with its own individuality, multiply and soon overflow from the screen itself and are projected onto the walls of the auditorium. (Tati, LeGrange, 1967)

There is no explanation as to how this effect was to be created in the individual theaters, but Tati clearly imagined his film transcending the boundaries of the screen upon which it would be projected, at least metaphorically.

Tati, Taschen, 2019, edited by Alison Castle

When I met my present partner, Hilde De Roover, in the early 2000s, one of the first movies we watched together was Playtime. We immediately developed a ritual based on the film that, I believe, would make Jacques Tati proud. Whenever we are in a city with an adequate drama of street life, we watch Playtime (or if one were to be strictly literal “play Watchtime”). We choose a bar or coffee shop with a large window that overlooks a busy street, order a drink and sit to observe the movie. Initially, the scene is fairly banal and random. Anonymous characters enter and pass through the frame. But suddenly a meeting occurs; two people gesture to each other and stop to chat. Then one of us recognizes someone who has passed through the frame earlier, walking back through in the opposite direction with a shopping bag and a kernel of scenario is introduced. Our intent concentration begins to impose meaning upon a manner of walking. A limp has a motivation, a heavy swaying gate communicates a mood and a glance up at a window in a building has significance for a character. With patient focus, the random flow of street life is organized into a dance, with everyone a potential Hulot.

On one occasion, we were eating in an Indian restaurant on Second Avenue in the East Village in New York, watching Playtime. Hilde excused herself to go to the bathroom. I was concentrating on a one-legged bicycle messenger, who struggled with a bag over his shoulder, when I saw a fashionable woman walking with parisienne flamboyance behind him. A Tati-like jump of detachment from the scene followed when I realized that Hilde had secretly entered the movie.  Her prank introduced the notion of meta-Playtime, in which we are also performers in the movie.

Certain cities have been ideal for watching Playtime:  New York, Chicago, Brussels . . . Paris, naturally, but I think the most rewarding city in which we’ve experienced the film is Buenos Aires. One afternoon in the San Cristobal neighborhood we found a large window with a view over a tiny park. We ate empanadas and drank Quilmes beer while we observed the movie. I recorded an account of the action later that evening:

Three old women eat lunch on a bench, sharing sandwiches and a big bottle of beer. They get up to leave and my attention briefly strays elsewhere on the street until I realize that they are unpacking the magazine stand by the park. It unlocks and folds out like a wooden toy to reveal display shelves for magazines and newspapers. One woman opens the stand, one sets up three folding chairs along the fence by the park and the third hurries back into the park with a hose and plastic bowl to a concrete basin set in the ground. The woman lowers one end of the hose into the water and induces the water to flow through the hose by scooping the surface with the bowl, shaking her hips comically in the process. The woman who set up the chairs is sweeping dog shit off the sidewalk; there’s always a lot of dog shit on the sidewalks in Buenos Aires. Once the detritus is cleared, the woman with the hose returns, squirting soap onto the sidewalk and watering it down.  She then attacks it vigorously with a broom, scrubbing it clean. (Hilde and I begin calling her “Mama De Roover” after Hilde’s mother, who also has a mania for cleaning.) When she finishes with the sidewalk, she returns to the park and starts cleaning the paths and watering the plants, aggressively chasing everyone out of the way. Old men on benches first lift their legs to avoid the water and then sheepishly fold their newspapers and move to another bench or leave altogether. This woman intends to have the cleanest spot in the neighborhood.  Finally, the three women sit down in the chairs and began to greet old men walking in the neighborhood, who stay to talk with them. In the two hours that we watch them, they sell one newspaper. (Schroeder 2012)

I like to imagine Jacques Tati lingering in bars and restaurants, studying the physical mannerisms of people, collecting material like my notes above as a starting point for his mime and then shaping his people watching into vignettes for his films.  As he once described his process, “Filmmaking is a pen, paper and hours of watching people and the world around you. Nothing more” (Tati, 1971). Playtime may be considered a grand window through which we view a collection of these vignettes, organized thematically. Indeed, it is a construction of many windows within windows capturing and reflecting multiple layers of perception in a wonderfully complex aesthetic space.  But Playtime is also simply a manner of seeing, a state of mind resultant from the experience of the movie. Tati’s final genius as a filmmaker is to transfer his eye for heightened gesture and situation to you, the viewer of his films. As his willing student, he taught me how to transform my own environment through this act of directed attention, curiosity and play. Start your own education May 28 – June 1 at the Trylon Microcinema––watch it every night!

Playtime screens from Friday, May 28 to Tuesday, June 1 at the Trylon Cinema. For tickets and more information, please visit trylon.org.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Works Cited

Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Dance of Playtime, (The Criterion Channel, 2009).

Jacques Tati, Michel LaGrange, Tati Film #4, (Taschen, Germany, 2019).

Jacques Tati, Interview 1971, (Taschen, Germany, 2019).

Les contretemps de M. Hulot

|Jesse Lawson|

Compared to Jacques Tati’s previous films, Trafic (1971)—beautifully shot and staged as always and sharply edited to give its gags punctuating force like a stomp on the brakes—can appear somewhat aimless as a narrative, slightly jaundiced in outlook. Such criticisms inevitably invoke Playtime (1967), where a potentially glib vision of modernist-urban-architecture-as-alienation turns inside out so joyously. As in that film, much of Trafic’s comedy is entropic: ridiculous new-fangled things malfunction in funny ways that, if the things were people, might appear sadistic. (Hear that poor car, bouncing as it’s towed, crying “ouch!”) Yet Playtime, with its mini-skyscrapers, is effervescing, where Trafic, and its automobiles, are more grounded, tires deflated. The film suggests that the fantasy of perfect automobility is just that—a fantasy we’re stuck with, like the sea of closely-parked, unmovable cars in the film’s closing shot. 

To the extent that the film is aimless, then, its narrative expresses that condition. Trafic is quite self-consciously a shaggy-dog story, even featuring a shaggy dog, Piton, whose pseudo-demise in one extended, rather problematic gag appears to comment on the film’s picaresque nature. (More on this later.) There is a plot: designer Monsieur Hulot (Tati) and driver Marcel (Marcel Fraval) are trying to transport their feature-rich Camping Car from Parisian factory Altra to an international car show in Amsterdam; however, numerous mechanical and legal delays impede their progress. These result partly from the impetuous efforts of American public relations manager Maria Kimberly (eponymous), who eventually becomes a love interest of sorts for Hulot. As it plays, Trafic may appear not to know where it’s going, but ultimately it seems to be content with not getting there.

Bog-standard classical film narrative has characters with psychological motivations that result in plot developments (you want something, you do something). Tati’s cinema, which rarely looks closer than a medium-long shot and where dialogue is musical and sparse, de-emphasizes psychology. Cars in typical Hollywood movies are vehicles the protagonists’ drive (as it were); thrilling chase sequences follow naturally. Trafic tends to favor intersections, parking lots, and accidents bereft of explosions. 

Such pauses bring to mind Raymond Williams on the subjective experience of driving:

Looked at from right outside, the traffic flows and their regulation are clearly a social order of a determined kind, yet what is experienced inside them—in the conditioned atmosphere and internal music of this windowed shell—is movement, choice of direction, the pursuit of self-determined private purposes. All the other shells are moving, in comparable ways but for their own different private ends. They are not so much other people, in any full sense, but other units which signal and are signaled to, so that private mobilities can proceed safely and relatively unhindered.1 

Given that much of the road action in Trafic happens while people are waiting to move, one might say that the deepest interiority drivers demonstrate is in a montage of peculiarly intent nose-picking—a private purpose of a kind perhaps more universal than ordinarily thought, but whose humanistic import is open to question. More typical for Tati might be the way faces and bodies echo the idiosyncratic movements of windshield wipers in the Amsterdam rain. These faces are perhaps more like “units signaling” than “people,” but the signals are not social.

Complicating our notion of Tati’s non-psychological (mock-behaviorist?) cinema is Maria Kimberley, who lacks interiority but is quite outspoken and in some sense extremely self-determining. As a manager, she shows little awareness of her effect on other people, but as a model (which the historical Kimberley was) she is extremely effective, managing an astonishing frequency of eye-catching costume changes—sometimes performed before our very eyes in her sports-convertible-as-wardrobe. In this vehicle, unlike her perpetually stalled Altra coworkers, she moves as one unit, zooming across the screen, hindering others’ mobilities. Indeed, her “private purposes” are “public relations,” her vehicle not a closed shell but open to the air. Visual comparisons of model and car are reinforced by smirkingly obvious onlooker commentary. This is both emblematic of the film’s critique of consumerism—it creates an inauthentic public life—and of a certain misogyny with which such critiques are often brewed.

Williams’ comments above describe what he called “mobile privatization” in a 1974 study of television. In a nutshell: as people come to live at greater distance from their workplaces, the family home becomes more nominally self-sufficient, with electric lighting and well-equipped kitchens; however, these conveniences also require travel for their sustenance (trips to the grocer and department store). There are social needs, too: where the city dweller could walk short distances or go by rail to enjoy a variety of entertainments, the suburban family benefits from radio and (later) television, making the home feel more autonomous while providing a sense of connection to a larger social world.2 

In Trafic, television plays a role comparable to the mobile cinema in Jour de fête (1949), where a newsreel’s triumphalist depiction of US airmail delivery inspires cyclist-postman François to attempt the fastest bicycle delivery possible, even (briefly) bypassing motorists. In Trafic, television depicts American flight competition of an even more spectacular order: the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. In response to this formidable event, mechanic Barrinson and driver Marcel mimic the astronauts by working with exaggerated slowness, as if in low gravity. For a change, modernity’s achievement has been to slow motion rather than accelerate it. When Jonathan Rosenbaum asked about this scene, Tati replied, “For them, the moon flight isn’t a great achievement; in relation to their private lives, it’s a flop.”3 If we take Tati’s word for this, the film says that the best use of television’s gaze is as a confirmation of the superiority of the private domain—probably best experienced in a bucolic setting like that Barrinson’s garage inhabits, by a canal with cattle roaming on the other side. (Similarly, Jour de fête takes place in a small French village, a site seemingly prior to mobile privatization.) This is, after all, where the camping-car that motivates the film’s action actually finds some use, its table-gate providing space for a convivial breakfast.

This country scene is also the setting for the aforementioned pseudo-demise of Piton, kidnapped by local youths and replaced with a shaggy coat under the wheel of Maria’s automobile. For Gary Giddens, this incident, which inspires much weeping in an uncomprehending Maria, has the effect of “humanizing” her.4 Undoubtedly, her character softens after this point: she embraces Hulot when he recovers the unscathed dog, and by the end of the film accepts the ultimate failure of Altra’s mission with levity. Even her sports car lurches more hesitantly, as if affectionately. 

Given the lack of psychological interiority in Tati’s films, it’s interesting to consider why the stupidity Maria demonstrates as Hulot tries to reveal the joke, with obvious frustration, is so discomfiting. That is: why is its sexism not merely an iteration of the vaudevillian and circus conventions that clearly inspired Tati? I’d venture that it’s because her transformation conforms to the norms of classical film narrative, in which characters’ psychology enables change. Of course, in some ways Maria “just happens” the way much of the action of a cinematically determined kind does in Tati’s films, but since she has more attitude than anyone else (and more dialogue) she also seems more “psychological,” or aspiring to the same, complaining frequently that a given task she feels compelled to undertake is “not my job.” At the same time, her speech, the very idea of public relations, comes across like those other redundant, obfuscating gadgets of modernity in Tati’s films. If the Piton gag catalyzes her assimilation to Tati’s worldview, it happens without her having any insight into how the trick actually works—which Hulot clearly does know. His character has the mastery of vaudevillian knowledge, prior to privatization, but Maria’s only mastery is as a fashion signifier, a pure visual pleasure whose value the film cannot grant without leering.

On a metaphorical level, pretending to kill the film’s shaggy-dog story and then rescuing it with an implied romance between Hulot and Maria suggests an attitudinal change for Tati since Playtime, whose financial failure was legendarily costly for him. Writ large, Tati’s films appear aware of Williams’ view “from right outside” that our convictions about our self-directed behavior in modern life are in many ways profoundly misguided. But where Playtime imagines that a meaningful spontaneity can occur in public life, Trafic seems to advocate for a retreat to whatever more private spaces are still available to us.


Perceptions of regression often compete with intimations of maturity, and so it goes with Trafic. In Playtime, the parting gift of a scarf marks Hulot’s separation from a would-be love interest (the always mild, often delighted Barbara), which plays no small part in that film’s transcendent pathos. While I get an undeniable rush from this, the feeling reminds me a bit uncomfortably of Ian MacDonald reminiscing about “Penny Lane”: “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture. A sunny optimism permeated everything and possibilities seemed limitless.”5 Left with this sentiment, what are those of us not included in this generational cohort to do but weep, as if for our own lost Pitons? It would be a mistake to regard Playtime as a source of limitless sunny optimism; rather, something of the tragic loss implied by MacDonald’s words inheres in the unrepeatable experience of that film’s collapsing-restaurant-party spectacular. Trafic’s lack of such giddy heights does make room for imagining other kinds of spaces where we might find, if not a momentary ebullience, perhaps some milder forms of happiness—perhaps not least because they insist less on self-direction.

Catch Trafic at the Trylon from Friday, May 21 to Tuesday, June 1. Buy tickets and learn more at trylon.org.

Citations

  1. Raymond Williams, The Year 2000 (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 188-189.
  2. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Routledge, 2003[1974]), see especially 20-21. Since Williams was writing in the seventies and eighties, the Internet and smartphones have intensified the same tendency, perhaps to the point where the mobility eclipses the privatization (as the Welsh pop band Super Furry Animals declared two decades ago with “Wherever I Lay My Phone, That’s My Home”).
  3. In Film Comment (July 1973), 40.
  4. Gary Giddens, “‘Trafic’: When Tati Drove Himself to the Edge,” New York Sun, 8 July 2008. Available here.
  5. Ian MacDonald Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (Chicago Review Press, 2005), 221.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Life Must Be Disrupted In Order To Be Revealed: The Recording As Record And The Hyper-Surveilled Entity Not Meant To Exist In An Unusual Summer

|Lamia Abukhadra|

This text is presented as part of the Mizna Film Series, a monthly selection which expands Mizna’s regular film programming to include screenings, critical essays, filmmaker interviews, and discussions exploring revolutionary forms of cinema from Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) and beyond.

An Unusual Summer screens at the Trylon Cinema on Wednesday, March 24 at 7 pm. Tickets and more information available here. If you’re interested in attending a free discussion with the filmmaker on Saturday, March 26 at 12 pm CST, learn more here.

On two separate occasions in Kamal Aljafari’s An Unusual Summer, a child’s voice, the only audible one in the film, says, “منشفش ولا شي، اه و كتير أشياء” which is subtitled as “we cannot see anything, and a lot of things.” Though seemingly insignificant, this phrase captures the formal and narrative interventions Aljafari employs to surveillance footage that his father took of their neighborhood, inserting nuance and emotion to “plotless acts”1 and subverting the images and perceptions produced by surveillance technologies. The surveillance image is static, detached and matter-of-fact. In purporting to offer a totalizing view, it makes the bodies captured by its infrastructures anonymous and inhuman: a group of moving pixels or the signals sent to magnetic particles on a video tape. The utterance also alludes to the sociopolitical context of surveillance in Occupied Palestine and its paradoxical consequences towards the Palestinian body. Those who are racialized by the occupying state, Palestinians, are surveilled, controlled, and suppressed in order to erase them physically and imaginally and to further the settler colonial project, creating a paradox of the hyper-surveilled body that is not meant to exist.

An Unusual Summer is a film based on found footage. In 2006, Abdeljalil Aljafari, Kamal’s father, decided to install a surveillance camera outside of his house to figure out who kept breaking his car window. Years later, after Abdeljalil had passed away, Kamal’s sister found the tapes. The material was like a treasure trove, allowing the filmmaker to share in the quotidian life of Al Ramle once again.2 Considered by Kamal Aljafari to be a collaboration with his late father, the film consists of surveillance footage fixed on the alleyway behind their house. On the left side of the frame is a busy road, near the top right is a grassy area with a tree, and in the center of the frame sit the family cars. Neighbors walk by. The Aljafari family members go to work or to the bakery. Daily life passes, all recorded by the camera.

When watching the film, one quickly forgets about the “plot,” finding the culprit behind the broken car window. This is not because the culprit is unimportant but because the editorial and narrative elements Aljafari implements make each figure equally important. Slowly, through Aljafari’s interventions, we are introduced to the figures who cross the frame as “characters,” and we learn them through their movements. Abu Rizeq trips because he had an accident when he was young; George Sousou is always wearing a blue shirt; the Imses sisters are dressmakers and are never seen apart; a man is in love with Aljafari’s sister and brings a bouquet to the house; Abou Ghazaleh is always on his bike, whistling––he is never seen on foot; a white cat; the tree; children playing with a kite; the kite itself.

Still from An Unusual Summer (2020)

The way each character appears is choreographed and repetitive; the frame becomes a stage. The footage from the found tapes was silent, but Aljafari has added sound, much of which he recorded from the same position where the surveillance camera had been installed. The effect is the creation of atmosphere, intimacy, and humor. A nylon bag dances across the gravel lot, crinkling, and the camera follows it. A gust of wind, caught on camera as a swirl of dust moving from right to left. Aljafari zooms in and follows the swirl, repeating the gesture a few times. Every day, at 5:13 am, a man in a checkered shirt walks across the lot to catch a bus. Aljafari layers multiple instances of the man’s routine on top of one another so that he is walking with his many selves, over and over. Ah Law Abeltak Men Zaman (اه لو أبلتك من زمان) by Warda plays, and the superimpositions become dancers in the early morning light. When Abdeljalil Aljafari coughs on camera, we actually hear Kamal coughing; a son filling in the familiar utterances of his deceased father. An old man always touches the trunks of the cars he passes, gravel crunching beneath his feet. Around minute twenty-six, we see him do it again, but this time a title card says, “He is tired.” Something so intimate: to be so familiar with the body language of your neighbor so that you know that he is experiencing fatigue even through the surveillance footage. Such attention to detail, such care, is not possible within apparatuses of state surveillance.

There are two forms of narration present in Aljafari’s film: the title card, which are sourced from the diary Aljafari kept as he rewatched his father’s surveillance tapes and which function similarly to title cards used in silent film, and the voice of his niece. While the title cards are often anecdotal or reflective, the narrative voice of the child is immediate, as if Aljafari’s niece is responding to the things she sees for the first time. When she sees her grandfather, Abdeljalil, get out of his car she exclaims, “هاي سيدو عبد! الله يرحمو” subtitled as “my grandfather abed! god bless him,” a tender and emotional comment that immediately humanizes what takes place in the grainy footage.

The ongoing occupation and its ripple effects are experienced as apparition. Police lights flash; a military vehicle whizzes by; the Aljafari’s family’s neighborhood is referred to as “the Ghetto”; a man passing by drinking a soda—the title card relaying that he has been imprisoned many times; the shadow cast by the second floor of the house, which remains unfinished since and due to the Nakba,3 is like a ghost; a burning dumpster; the mention of shootings in the area. They fade away as the attention of the viewer is drawn again to the mundane, to life.

Though the passage of time is measured by the camera’s timestamp on the lower left side of the frame, time does not function linearly. It passes in shadows, as cars move backwards, and as the day can suddenly shift to night. Often, the timestamp is erased or cropped out of the frame. Aljafari intentionally rearranges time to emphasize life. In a letter describing his approach, he writes, “the single angle somehow eliminated time as we know it in cinema, this wasn’t made for a film, it was made for life. Everything and every time existed.”4

The transformation of the footage from linear, silent, and stationary to choreographed and anecdotal “iterative and accumulating one movement sequences,”5 creates a relational space, rather than a surveilled one, in which the lived experiences of the minor figures6 from Al Ramle are perceived as novel, as significant, as historically situated7 and timeless. Nothing happens, and everything happens.https://player.vimeo.com/video/161970557?dnt=1&app_id=122963

One can draw connections between Aljafari’s film and Only The Beloved Keeps Our Secrets8 byRuanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas, a video piece structured around footage taken from an Israeli military surveillance camera in 2014. The grainy footage depicts Israeli forces ambushing a group of three boys and shooting dead Yusuf Shawamreh, a fourteen year-old boy who crossed a “separation fence” near Al Khalil (Hebron) to forage for aqoub. However cruel and irrational the murder of Yusuf may be, the hyper-surveillance and criminalization of the Palestinian body is an ongoing aspect of the settler-colonial project. Earlier this month, five Palestinian children who ranged in age from  eight to twelve were harassed by Israeli settlers before the military was called to arrest them for picking the same wild plant near an illegal settlement. The eldest boys of the group will face charges.9 These tactics make the body hyper-visible in order to erase it, in death and in narrative, establishing the settler colonial imaginary and perceptions as hegemonic truths, as positive––so that all other lived experiences happen in the negative.

In the work of Abou-Rahme and Abbas, the surveillance image is not static; the camera jerks back and forth, tracking the three boys as faceless black figures walking and bending down in grey and white fields. The camera jolts as the soldiers, seen as large armed black figures, ambush the boys; an armored car speeds to the area; the dying boy’s body is put in the vehicle by the soldiers. The footage, which was only released after a court injunction, is layered with text and moving images, both found and recorded, from Palestine. We see videos of protests, dances, folk songs, home demolition, people foraging, landscapes, wild plants, and abandoned developments—creating a sense of density and fragmentation. The text and images redact each other while interacting with one another, while the sound pulses through two speakers and a subwoofer.10 The accumulation and relation of these elements are felt, bodily, and they manifest an affective space between appearance and disappearance in which “uncounted bodies counter their own erasures, appearing on a street, on a link, on a feed. Words from their songs are broken up and reformed.”11 In this case, the minor figures, whose lived experiences are perceived by the settler colonial imaginary as background noise, treated as a threat or as a ghost, appear anew in mutation.

Aljafari is intimately familiar with the paradoxical position of the Palestinian body. In a master class at Festival Ciné-Palestine, Aljafari spoke about the making of his film Recollection in which he altered over fifty Israeli films shot in Jaffa from the ’60s to the ’80s to erase all traces of foregrounded Israeli characters or sets. Only the structures and figures originally mediated as background, the Palestinian residents of Jaffa, many of whom the filmmaker knows personally, are left as main characters. “In Jaffa and also in Jerusalem, [as a Palestinian] you know, you’re an outsider, you’re an outcast. You’re a ghost in your own country. That’s why I identify myself with the characters, with people I find in the background. I am one of them, in fact, and I grew up as one of them.”12 It is because Aljafari is familiar with this paradox, to be hyper-surveilled yet meant to be invisible, that he is effectively able to expose it, intuit its subversion, and negotiate the boundaries of visibility and invisibility.

The effects of such a paradox are embodied in An Unusual Summer, as people are often seen experiencing paranoia. Aljafari’s neighbor Yousef, for example, is constantly looking over his shoulder. The title cards say that he mutters to himself, “They have taken everything,” over and over. The paradox is especially intimated the short anecdote which roll before the credits: Aljafari’s father is arrested on his wedding night because the band played a song for Palestine; Aljafari himself must perform a logistical gymnastics every time he wants to drive from his neighborhood to the airport, or vice versa, so that he is not racialized by Israeli taxi drivers, and his family is not stopped for hours at a checkpoint. This is the experience of being seen as a threat, or not at all.

Near the end of the film, a title card reads, “Life must be disrupted in order to be revealed.” This is the intuitive force that drives An Unusual Summer, to reveal life. Aljafari’s film also reveals something else: in recording oneself within a surveillance state that is determined to erase you, in altering such a recording to emphasize affect and the significance of minor moments, the recording becomes a record.

1  André Elias Mazawi, “Vancouver, BC, Wednesday, April 15, 2020, 7:51PM & January 28, 2021, 8:45AM,” Received by Kamal Aljafari, Kamal Aljafari Research & Letters, 15 Apr. 2020, kamalaljafari.art/Research-Letters.
Kamal Aljafari, “An Unusual Summer,” Received by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, Film Text: An Unusual Summer Film Text: An Unusual Summer, Woche Der Kritik, 24 Feb. 2021, wochederkritik.de/de_DE/magazine/film-text-an-unusual-summer-alexandrowicz-aljafari/.
Ibid.
Ibid.
André Elias Mazawi, “Vancouver, BC, Wednesday, April 15, 2020, 7:51PM & January 28, 2021, 8:45AM,” Received by Kamal Aljafari, Kamal Aljafari Research & Letters, 15 Apr. 2020, kamalaljafari.art/Research-Letters.
When thinking through Palestinian conditions of erasure, historiography, and mundanity, I am always in conversation with Saidiya Hartman’s use of minor figures, which she defines as the young black women who led revolutionary lives but were considered insignificant in historical records: “They have been credited with nothing: they remain surplus women of no significance, girls deemed unfit for history and destined to be minor figures.” Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020), xiv.
André Elias Mazawi, “Vancouver, BC, Wednesday, April 15, 2020, 7:51PM & January 28, 2021, 8:45AM,” Received by Kamal Aljafari, Kamal Aljafari Research & Letters, 15 Apr. 2020, kamalaljafari.art/Research-Letters.
An excerpt of the video piece is available here. Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas, directors. Only The Beloved Keeps Our Secrets (Extract). Vimeo, 2016, vimeo.com/161970557.
Al Jazeera “Video Shows Israeli Troops Detaining Palestinian Children,” Occupied West Bank News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 11 Mar. 2021, www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/11/video-shows-israeli-troops-detaining-palestinian-children.
10 Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas, “Only The Beloved Keeps Our Secrets,” Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2016, baselandruanne.com/Only-The-Beloved-Keeps-Our-Secrets.
11 Ibid.
12 Kamal Aljafari, “Masterclass Kamal Aljafari: (Re)Collection: Shifting Borders between Visibility and Invisibility.” Festival Ciné-Palestine. Festival Ciné-Palestine, 27 May 2018, Paris, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiXqn4kqBOg.

The Erotic Underground: William Friedkin’s Cruising

|Kelly Krantz|

The first time I saw William Friedkin’s Cruising was in the mid-90s, when I was in high school. I’d probably read about it in a zine, which is where I learned about most of the weird shit I liked at the time. Luckily, the small video store I walked to most days had a surprisingly diverse selection, and it was no problem to bring home the grainy VHS copy and watch it in my basement lair. The film made a big impact on me. I’d never seen a movie with such explicit and gritty queer content. Everyone was so sweaty! Upon the film’s release in 1980, it shocked many and was characterized as lurid and prurient. Even after all these years, it still has the power to provoke.

There’s been plenty written about the controversies surrounding the film’s production and reception. Activists at the time worried that the linking of a gay subculture with violence would lead the public to view all gay people as murderous deviants. The story is ripped from the headlines, based on a novel that dramatized the unsolved murders of members of the gay leather community in the 1970s. Al Pacino stars as the ostensibly straight cop who goes undercover into the New York gay S&M/leather scene in order to catch a suspected serial killer. The work affects his relationship with his girlfriend as he disappears more into his role. The longer he spends undercover, the more difficult it is to tell if a dedication to solving the case is what drives him, or if something more complicated causes him to take increasingly dangerous risks. There’s much in the film that is left ambiguous.

Avenues for cruising are not what they once were, particularly as smart phones and apps replace in-person seduction, and that’s not even taking into consideration how the covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we live. For an account of the glory days, you could read Samuel R. Delaney’s surprisingly sweet essays about hooking up in Times Square pornographic movie theaters: Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. To Delaney, cruising was liberating, fun, and equalizing. He preserves the memory of these spaces lost to gentrification, the working class nonconformists driven out under the auspices of family-friendliness. The world of Friedkin’s Cruising is much darker and more challenging than the nostalgia of Delaney’s essays, yet on the margins of the crime story, there is still the sense of uninhibited abandon, erotic tension and urgent release found in those works. The lifestyle may have been taboo and unusual to many at the time, but the film doesn’t critique the denizens of the leather bars portrayed, only the predators who brutalize them, whether they be a bored beat cop or a ruthless murderer.

When I first saw Cruising, I didn’t know anyone who would’ve shared my enthusiasm, but it made me feel furtively thrilled and a little scandalized. Today, I own it on Blu-Ray, a far cry from a VHS so grainy that it was hard to tell who was who on screen, and although it wasn’t well received at the time of its release, the movie has undergone reevaluation by the public. Before it hit screens, Friedkin cut about 40 minutes from the film to avoid an X rating, mostly graphic sex in the leather bars, and it is believed that any evidence of these edits has since been destroyed. This fabled footage has captured imaginations of high-profile fans through the years, and it became the subject of a work of docufiction, Interior. Leather Bar directed by James Franco in 2013. Legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe even found inspiration for his own controversial art from the film, a scene where the cops introduce a memorable element of distraction into a tough interrogation.

I’m a huge fan of Friedkin, and this is his work that most commands my attention. One thing I love about movies is that a story involving a situation wholly unlike the one we find ourselves in daily can still reflect something back to us. This series is called The Reckless Abandon of William Friedkin, a fitting way to describe Al Pacino’s undercover cop’s dangerous plunge into rough trade. “Reckless abandon” can be risky, but it can also be a fucking blast. Pull on your chaps and caps (even if they’re metaphorical), polish up the boots, and walk through the curtain into the theater. You might just end up submitting to the truths you learn about yourself.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Cruising screens at the Trylon as part of The Reckless Abandon of William Friedkin, starting on Friday, March 19 at 7 pm. For more information and for tickets, go to trylon.org.

Soleil Ô And A Transnational Third Cinema

|Ahmed AbdulMageed|

This text is presented as part of the Mizna Film Series, a monthly selection which expands Mizna’s regular film programming to include screenings, critical essays, filmmaker interviews, and discussions exploring revolutionary forms of cinema from Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) and beyond.

Soleil Ô screens at the Trylon Cinema on Wednesday, February 24 at 7 pm. Tickets and more information available here. If you miss the in-person screening, you can catch it online from Thursday, February 25 to Sunday, March 1. More information here.

In the wake of a tricontinental wave of revolutions and independence movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, the theoretical and ideological framework of Third Cinema came to life through a series of militant manifestos by Latin American filmmakers Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino, and Julio García Espinosa in the late 1960s. Solanas and Getino’s essay “Towards a Third Cinema,” published  in 1969, coined the term “Third Cinema” in the journal Tricontinental by the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL). While concerned with the national process of decolonization in Third Cinema, Solanas and Getino left out the transnational question when it comes to the political.1 The work of Teshome Gabriel around the rethinking of Third Cinema, and especially in his book Third Cinema in The Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation, expands Third Cinema theory into the transnational. Gabriel highlights that Third Cinema is not a cinema defined by geography; it is a cinema primarily defined by its socialist, and therefore transnational, politics.2 At large, Third Cinema theory and practice offered a move against and away from consumer capitalism and Hollywood’s First Cinema. Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1970) in particular embodies this Third Cinema rejection of Eurocentrism and First and Second Cinema conventions both thematically and stylistically, and through a transnational lens, the film moves beyond the national question of liberation.

Early Third Cinema theory and practice were powerfully marked by the larger critical paradigms of dependency theory and notions around cultural imperialism dominant in the 1960s and 1970s.3 The journal Tricontinental expressed the aspirations of peoples from three continents struggling against the criminal policies of intervention, plunder and aggression employed by the world-wide imperialist system and particularly by US Imperialism against the Afro-Asian-Latin American peoples. The first issue of the journal included articles by Franz Fanon, Kim Il Sung, and Fidel Castro.4 Similarly, Third Cinema aimed to immerse itself in the lives and struggles of the peoples of the Third World. Since the Third World should not continue to dissipate its culture and national identity, Third Cinema tries to conserve what is left.5 The ideology of Third Cinema thus adheres to investigating the traumatic cultural shifts that engulf the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America as a result of colonization.

Focused on an unnamed Black African migrant with an unclear nationality, Soleil Ô narrates the migration of Africans to France during the 1950s and 1960s, a period derogatorily termed the “black invasion” by the French. At that point in history, the mass migration of immigrants from a colonial empire in the process of dissolution was replacing the European migrant labor force France depended upon. Thus, tensions arose as the influx of new migrants and influences from African colonies was transforming the structure of the French society. Paradoxically, this transformation in French society simultaneously resulted in an entrenchment of colonial power disparities, which reinforced patterns of systemic oppression initiated under colonial rule in a neocolonial light. These attitudes were reflected through the exploitation of Black African migrants who, regardless of education and skill levels, were relegated to the lowest ranks of employment as laborers. Denied adequate housing and subjected to extreme racism, these migrants found themselves trapped between a Parisian bureaucracy that resented their presence and dysfunctional post-independence African governments who regarded their situation as a French problem. Soleil Ô‘s depiction of the Black migrant as persona non grata in both France and a (post-)colonial Africa creates a dislocation that allows Hondo to advocate the evolution of revolutionary ideology and its potential role in transforming both Africa and the situation for Black migrants in Paris.6

Third Cinema filmmakers see film as a weapon with the camera as an “inexhaustible expropriator of image-weapons and the projector, a gun that can shoot 24 frames per second.”7 The act of filming then becomes more than a political act. Third Cinema films do not aim to re-aestheticize traditional cinematic modes, but to rather politicize cinema to the extent where a new cinematic code appropriate to its needs is established.8 While mainstream First Cinema entertains, it retains a huge emphasis on individual psychology, personal achievement, and wealth accumulation. Set against an often hostile world, Third Cinema emphasizes social problems and collective actions,confronting issues such as social justice, racial and gender equality, and the spreading of wealth and power. Third Cinema has a direct political function in that it attacks the hegemonic culture. Just as Hollywood cinema is political and one-sided, so is Third Cinema, except that its political ideology is opposed to the political views implicit in Hollywood cinema.9 Third Cinema includes an infinite variety of subjects and forms, as varied as the lives of the people it portrays, identifying the masses as the true hero and the only existing force capable of defeating class enemies in their home fronts.10 The production and praxis of Third Cinema, i.e. the call to action of these films, leads us to view the aesthetic of Third Cinema as a form of ideology; that is, the films point toward a confrontational cinema and an aesthetics of liberation.11 It can even be argued that a film’s validity as a revolutionary film resides in its cultural intonations, historical context and ideological dimensions.12

Stylistically, Third Cinema achieves this confrontational effect by relying on several cinematic choices that challenge the conventional choices of First Cinema. Most notably, Third Cinema films often combine the fictional and the documentary to deliver a confrontational ideology rooted in reality. For Third Cinema, style, form, and ideology all become inseparable. The essence of Third Cinema is found in its rejection of First Cinema and cultural imperialism. Thus, the ideology and form of Third Cinema is to deconstruct the colonial culture permeating Third World nations. Third Cinema counters the images of Third World peoples portrayed as uncivilized, violent, and primitive and  confronts the true violence and incivility practiced by the colonial First World.13 Throughout Soleil Ô, Hondo violently attacks the mirages and effects of colonialism on humans within a Marxist framework. In one scene, the unnamed African migrant enters an open apartment to ask for assistance in finding a job. He finds a man and a woman each staring at a different television, their eyes glued to variety shows playing on screen, taking no notice of their surroundings nor the nameless protagonist asking for help. This scene portrays the White French couple as brainwashed slaves to on-screen capitalism. The couple suddenly starts having an intense fight about money, and their uncivil screams grow louder and louder. Their screams sound almost like animals howling at each other and the camera moves violently between their faces as they exchange yells. The couple is portrayed in a way similar to how First World cultural products portray Third World peoples as loud, violent, and uncivilized. In a comic change of events, the couple’s fight comes to an abrupt end as soon as a Christian sermon comes up on their TV screens. With satire, Hondo attacks common First World stereotypes, humorously presenting a White-passing West Indian who has “transmitted Blackness” to his baby. In another scene, Hondo shows a disappointed White French woman unimpressed with the sexual performance of her Black African date, addressing the hypersexualized stereotype of Black men that still pervades many White minds.14

The point of view in Third Cinema is not a reflection of the consciousness or subjectivity of a single subject (a protagonist/hero); rather, the central figure in Third Cinema serves to develop a historical perspective on radical social change. The protagonist/hero might cast the glance, but in actuality it is the masses or the people who give substance to the gaze.15 The individual hero in Third Cinema is a collective subject; they are not endowed with individuality—the legitimizing function of conventional cinema.16 Correspondingly, the unnamed protagonist in Soleil Ô represents African immigrants in Europe in large, his bag has the flags of several African states on it and it is never clear where he is from. Gabriel highlights that where a central character is used, the viewpoint goes beyond that of the individual to develop a sense of the relationship between the individual and the community, of the collective, and of history.17 The lack of name or nationality of the protagonist works to adhere to a transnational framework in critiquing neo-colonial European exploitation of Black African migrant workers.

Additionally, Third Cinema films often contain critiques of religion functioning as a vital aid in the destruction of identity of colonized African peoples. The opening prologue of the film documents the breakdown of individual African nations by the denial of their languages, religions, and cultures. Hondo presents this denial through the visual metaphor of a Christian baptism conducted by a White priest and attended by a culturally diverse group of African men. As each man approaches the priest, he asks him in French to be forgiven for speaking his indigenous language: Peul, Bambara, Lingala, Creole, and several others. In effect, all of these individual cultures become reduced to one by the acceptance of the colonizer’s language and the rejection of their own. Thus as the priest exhorts the spirit of evil to “leave these children,” the African men become dislocated from a multiplicity of indigenous origins and begin a process of assimilation that falsely promises to lead them to cultural union with the colonizer.18 As each man is baptized, they assume a new Christian name given by the priest. Their individual identities and nations are erased through the enforcement of a new identity on them by the colonizer, here represented by the priest.

The last sequence of Soleil Ô shows the nameless protagonist in a forest. He is invited to eat with a French family vacationing at their country house, but is shocked by their waste, which the film extends to represent the waste of the First World. In a very uncivil manner, the children are allowed, or rather encouraged, by their parents to step on all the food on the lunch table. Disgusted by such insensitive and vile acts so strongly opposed to his own ideals, the nameless protagonist walks away, leaving the family, and  quickly starts running back into the forest. Breathless, he falls at the trunk of a tree and has visions of Third World revolutionaries such as Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Mehdi Ben Barka, and Malcolm X. Such an ending reflects the ideological progress which has taken place in the nameless protagonist’s mind. It symbolizes his new awareness, which parallels his own escape. He is surrounded by images of prominent transnational figures fighting against colonialism, a fight that has existed since the very beginning of White imperialism in Africa and that is seldom mentioned by mainstream First World media and cultural products.19 His fight for liberation is in line with the fight of the revolutionary figures he sees in the forest; his fight is not individual, it is a collective fight against colonialism, exploitation, and the erasure of the multiplicity of identity.

Third Cinema is a cinema of subversion. It aims to simultaneously destroy and  construct: there is a destruction of the images of colonial or neo-colonial cinema, and a construction of another cinema that captures the transnational revolutionary impulse of the peoples of the Third World.20 The transnational visions of Africa created by diaspora, such as Soleil Ô, challenge depictions of Africa as a monolithic site of origin and authenticity. In The Archeology of Origin: Transnational Visions of Africa in a Borderless Cinema, Sheila Petty outlines Avtar Brah’s concept of diaspora as a delineation of a field of identifications, where imagined communities are forged within and outside  a confluence of narratives from annals of collective memory and rememory.21 This idea suggests that diaspora, as both an abstraction and a reality, defies borders of nation and is a space where multiple subject positions are juxtaposed, contested, proclaimed, or disavowed. Thus, histories and cultures intercross freely, creating transnational layers of identity and of origin. As a diasporic film, Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô provides a transnational confrontation to neo-colonial exploitation of Black African migrant workers in France in line with the style and ideology of Third Cinema.

1 Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino. “TOWARD A THIRD CINEMA.” Cinéaste, vol. 4, no. 3, 1970, pp. 1–10. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/41685716, 3.
2 Wayne, Mike. Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema. Pluto Press, 2001, 1.
3 Stam, Robert. “Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism, Polycentrism: Theories of Third Cinema.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 13, no. 1-3, Jan. 1991, pp. 217–237., doi:10.1080/10509209109361378, 219.
4 Buchsbaum, Jonathan. “A Closer Look at Third Cinema.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 21, no. 2, June 2001, pp. 153–166., doi:10.1080/01439680120051497, 155.
5 Gabriel, Teshome H. Third Cinema in the Third World: the Aesthetics of Liberation. UMI Research Press, 1982, xi.
6 Petty, Sheila. “The Metropolitan Myth: Assimilation, Racism and Cultural Devaluation in Soleil O and Pièces D’Identités.” L’Esprit Créateur, vol. 41, no. 3, 2001, pp. 163–171., doi:10.1353/esp.2010.0154, 164.
7 Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino. “TOWARD A THIRD CINEMA.” Cinéaste, vol. 4, no. 3, 1970, pp. 1–10. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/41685716, 8.
8 Gabriel, Teshome H. Third Cinema in the Third World: the Aesthetics of Liberation. UMI Research Press, 1982, xi.
9 Ibid, 3.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid, 6.
12 Ibid, 38.
13 Stam, Robert. “Beyond Third Cinema: The Aesthetics of Hybridity.” Rethinking Third Cinema, edited by Anthony R. Guneratne and Wimal Dissanayake, Routledge, 2003, pp. 31–48, 35.
14 Sanogo, Aboubakar. “The Indocile Image: Cinema and History in Med Hondo’s Soleil O and Les Bicots-Nègres, Vos Voisins.” Rethinking History, vol. 19, no. 4, 2015, pp. 548–568., doi:10.1080/13642529.2015.1063236, 554.
15 Gabriel, Teshome H. Third Cinema in the Third World: the Aesthetics of Liberation. UMI Research Press, 1982, 7.
16 Ibid, 8.
17 Ibid, 24.
18 Petty, Sheila. “The Archeology of Origin: Transnational Visions of Africa in a Borderless Cinema.” African Studies Review, vol. 42, no. 2, Sept. 1999, pp. 73–86., doi:10.2307/525365, 77.
19 Pfaff, Françoise. “The Films of Med Hondo An African Filmmaker in Paris.” Jump Cut, vol. 31, Mar. 1986, pp. 44–46., www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC31folder/HondoFilms.html.
20 Gabriel, Teshome H. Third Cinema in the Third World: the Aesthetics of Liberation. UMI Research Press, 1982, 94.
21 Ibid, 74.

The Way of the Dragon

|John Moret|

In the spring of 1970 a charismatic bit player and stuntman named Bruce Lee approached Warner Brothers to produce a show about a Shaolin Monk in the American West. Warner Brothers gave the greenlight for the show and cast a white actor in the role of the monk, leaving Lee furious. A frustrated Lee left the United States for Hong Kong, where he starred in hit after hit. In the States, the films Lee made in Hong Kong were released with confusing and mixed-up titles, especially following the success of Enter the Dragon. When Big Boss was released, it was under the titleFist of Furyˆ––and Fist of Fury was released as The Chinese Connection. These US releases were strangely dubbed versions that retained Lee’s signature attack yells and nothing else—but that was enough for 15-year-olds in small, southern Minnesota towns to fall in love with the sound of that yelp on VHS tapes decades later. The voice actors seemed to play every character, except Lee himself, as comedic relief. None of this got in the way of my sheer delight in watching them. In fact, though I recognize that the films can be taken seriously in an entirely different manner when not dubbed, I still have a nostalgic fondness for those versions. 

Watching the newly restored versions of these films has been a fascinating re-education for me.The Big Boss, for instance, was seen by my 15-year-old self as simply a great action picture, which it is. Seeing it this time around, there are so many elements that I didn’t notice before. For one thing, the film is a biting critique of capitalism and union busting. When a few of the workers go missing for asking questions about what’s being distributed inside of the ice they are manufacturing, “the big boss” sends a busload of thugs to put down the striking workers. Likewise, when the workers win with the help of Cheng (Lee), the big boss makes Cheng the new foreman, undermining the resentment of the workers for a time. Recognizing these anti-labor tactics adds a completely new dimension, especially because it was meant to attract audiences in communist China.

The other thing that sticks out to me is the representations of race and culture. In Fist of Fury the villains are made up of the occupying Japanese forces. As an aside, the Japanese make up a large percentage of the villains in Chinese kung fu films. Likewise, in The Way of the Dragon THE WAY OF THE DRAGON the villains are Italian mobsters and American mercenaries; the villains tweaked to speak to respective audiences. Here too, thinking about the audiences in China during the Cold War places these films in a place diametrically opposed to my 15-year-old self-identity. Yet, the richness of Lee’s complicated relationship with the United States plays into all of this. 

The Hong Kong films that Bruce Lee worked on completely transformed the action genre across the globe. Studios like Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest had been producing these kinds of films for a while and they were extremely successful in Asian markets. In the midst of the Vietnam War, US distributors were wary of making an action film with an Asian star. However, on the heels of these Hong Kong breakout films, Warner Brothers sought to try out a different kind of film with Lee in the central role. Lee understood they needed to capture multiple audiences to make the film a success—John Saxon to attract white audiences,featured heavily in all the marketing, and the star of Black Belt Jones, Jim Kelly, to attract black audiences. And so, with success in mind above principals, Lee convinced WB to unwittingly make the first cross-cultural phenomenon film by putting together a global inter-racial partnership the likes of which we see replayed in every Fast and the Furious film since. 

Enter the Dragon’s production was aghast with problems. Aging equipment, which the US crews had trouble operating (but the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest crews had no problem using) meant that all of the film’s dialogue was captured later, in the same manner as a Spaghetti Western. Multiple fights broke out among extras and Lee was attacked by an extra attempting to prove his mettle. Lee dispensed of the attacker easily and sent him back to work. Lee was hurt multiple times by some of the 8,000 shattered mirrors and broken bottles (they used REAL bottles!?). And yet, Lee was the force behind the film that kept it moving. And, because of that these films have a loyal following in the States that has endured for 50 years.

In short, these films, like so many of the great Kung Fu films of its time, were dangerous. And, you can feel it when you watch them. The fight scenes are raw and wide-angled without the digital masking of computer graphics. Lee’s performances carry a weight and sincerity that would forever make him revered. One of my favorite examples is his nonchalance when entering into the big fight scenes––especially in The Big Boss when he is snacking on something from a white bag while walking towards some henchmen with knives. 

Sadly, Lee died a month before the release of Enter the Dragon, so he never got to see what it would become. Luckily, we did. And, luckily, we finally have new restorations of his Hong Kong films. 

The international distribution of Lee’s Hong Kong films have been difficult for years. When I originally tried to book this series seven years ago, I hit roadblock after roadblock. There were no good screening materials. I was only able to track down a handful of 35mm prints in the hands of private collectors in the States and I was told they were in rough shape. There were no restorations available either. Likewise, the distributor, Fortune Star, had little interest in booking these films here so the prices were enormous. In 2016 Fortune Star began their restorations of these four films from the original 35mm negatives in both Hong Kong and at L’immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy. Janus Films has released these films here in the US. Who knows how long we’ll have them?

Edited by Michelle Baroody

“The Way of the Dragon: The Hong Kong Films of Bruce Lee” runs throughout February a the Trylon and begins screening at the Trylon on Friday, February 5. For more information, visit trylon.org. We’re still operating at a limited capacity, so please book your ticket in advance and don’t forget your mask!

A call for submissions to the first Trylon zine

Though the Trylon is open for (very limited) business, we are unable to meet our monthly costs with screenings alone. We’ve started kicking around the idea of putting out a limited edition zine written by our staff, volunteers and YOU to raise some funds! Because so many of us need to be seperate, we want to share our ideas in a medium that we love almost as much as movies, one that doesn’t require us to meet together.

We invite submissions––written and visual––that focus on a variety of topics related to movies and the Trylon. But we are especially interested in descriptive articles that help document and reflect on what the Trylon, repertory cinema, Minneapolis / St. Paul, and/or movie theaters mean, or have meant, to you. The zine aims to provide readers with insight and understanding of the ways we have come together as a community, a community that sits quietly together in the dark, and learns to adapt to a difficult, ever-changing, crisis together.

Submissions might address, but are certainly not limited to written or visual pieces that

  • Document the spring and summer without the Trylon.
  • Recount memorable movie screenings at the Trylon or elsewhere.
  • Describe a theater that means/meant a lot to you.
  • Explores why you’re still not ready to venture into a movie theater.
  • Chronicles how the local and global uprising changed the way you watch movies.

We’re excited to build community on our blog and in print, and we welcome your creativity. If you want to discuss an idea, please send a note to john@trylon.org and perisphere@trylon.org

The Trylon is a 501(c)3 non-profit repertory cinema. We believe that the past is not so distant and the world is not so large that we can’t gain understanding from one another. 

A Love Letter to a Nineties Rom-Com

|Finn Odum|

Of all the things I discovered when I was fifteen, you were the least detrimental to my health. In a year of crippling anxiety and one particularly bad debate tournament, you were a shining star amidst the dark. You, a mildly out-of-touch teen rom-com retelling one of Shakespeare’s worst comedies. Who would’ve thought that of all the cinematic gold I watched that year, you were the one I’d remember the most? 2014, the year of the action blockbusters Kingsman: The Secret Service and three different Marvel movies. The year of Whiplash and Foxcatcher. Yes, all of those were technically good movies. And no, none of them compare to the epic 99 minutes of Heath Ledger brooding all over the place.

But why? You’re just another slightly offensive teen movie from the late nineties. In 2020, it’s easy to look back at you and speak only of your questionable content. Like the sole non-white character who’s wedged into the plot for a mildly comical political commentary on race. Or Kat’s dialogue, which is full of so many hyper-intellectual feminist buzzwords that she could’ve been my freshman year critical theory professor.

None of that’s your fault, I suppose. You were released in 1999—the same year I was born, coincidentally—alongside another literary-adaptation-turned-teen-rom-com, She’s All That. You’re both relics of your era, with leading men who’d soon become much more famous than the movies where they got their start. But She’s All That was just another retelling of Pygmalion, following in the footsteps of My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman before it. Aside from its modern, high-school setting, it brought nothing new to the story. Its shallow, nerd-to-prom-queen plotline is an updated but unoriginal take on the source material, straight down to the misguided gender roles filled by its one-dimensional characters.

You, on the other hand, don’t hand over Kat and Bianca to the same cruel fates that awaited them in the source material. Between you and me, The Taming of the Shrew is an uncreative insult to Shakespeare’s ability as a writer. The original reduces Kate, an outspoken, independent individual, to a shallow and thoughtless object. Poor Bianca doesn’t even get the luxury of having a personality; she’s the ideal passive object, her only purpose being the McGuffin for her suitors. But in your retelling of this dated tale, the female leads aren’t objects. In fact, by the end of the movie, Bianca’s fed up with being treated like one. She beats the living daylights out of Joey Donner (your Hortensio) after she learns he only wanted to date her so they could have sex. Bianca’s not the tame, perfect bride Shakespeare wrote her to be. She gets to play an active role in her own story, not sidelined for the sake of comedy.

Then there’s Kat, whose whip-smart attitude was something I could only wish to emulate in high school. Maybe that’s why I have so much affection for you: Kat represented the kind of person I wanted to be when I was a high school senior. She was smart, independent, and refused to take garbage from anyone else. Better yet, she remained that way for the entire story. Yes, one could argue that Patrick changes Kat, but it’s not through verbal and psychological abuse. He shows her an actual human relationship. She, in turn, makes the decision to open herself up to someone else. Kat reconciles her relationships with her family and Patrick without changing her core identity. And Patrick, unlike Petruchio, falls in love with Kat just as she is, not as some ideal woman he’s constructed in his head.

So, is that the source of my nostalgia? The way you saved the heroes from an unfortunate demise? My writer’s brain is inclined to believe so. You took Shakespeare’s plot and spun it into your own story. The question then became, what about the changed storyline was so memorable? At first, I thought it was because the romantic plotline was believable. The characters still end up together, sure, but Kat and Patrick’s romance is organic. They’ve fallen for each other, flaws and all. But here’s the thing: I’m not a hopeless romantic. If I remember correctly, when I discovered you, I wasn’t thrilled about watching a rom-com. And, as much as I loved Kat when I was fifteen, it’s taken me some time to realize that name dropping Simone de Beauvoir in your English class isn’t cool. She’s a wonderful protagonist, but I don’t idolize her the way I used to.

Being quarantined at home with my family helped me figure out why this film matters so much to me. At your core, you’re a story about relationships. Cameron and Bianca. Kat and Patrick. But the relationship that matters most? It’s Bianca and Kat’s. By changing Kat and Bianca’s narrative, you didn’t just give them the chance to stand on their own, you gave them the chance to be sisters. Kat spends the film trying to deter Bianca from dating Joey because she wants to protect her. Everything she does is an attempt to keep her sister from making the same mistake that she had when she was Bianca’s age. And when Bianca finally finds her voice, she uses it to stick up for her older sister and herself.

I’m an older sister. When I was fifteen, I was worried about my younger sister adjusting to her first year of high school. All I wanted to do was keep her safe. And after going through my own crisis of mental health, I was terrified that she’d suffer through something similar. So when I watched you for the first time, I could see myself and my sister in Kat and Bianca. Their sisterhood, through all its ups and downs, reminded me of my own.

You’re not a perfect movie. But you hold an important place in my heart as a piece of media that really resonated with me, flaws and all. So, for that, 10 Things I Hate About You, I say thank you.

Sincerely,

Finn Odum

Edited by Michelle Baroody

10 Things I Hate About You is screening at the Trylon from Friday, September 18 to Tuesday, September 22. For more information, visit trylon.org

Justice for George and Solidarity in the Twin Cities

|Matt Levine|

Photo by Matt Levine

There are few parts of my country in which I can take pride as an American. Not its healthcare system nor gun control laws, both so nonexistent that they blur the lines between barbarism and civilization. Certainly not its oligarchy parading as democracy, by which the whims and desires of the wealthy and powerful leave us with few political options (a dire choice American voters will now have to face two elections in a row – we know how that worked out last time). And most obviously not the many ways in which institutional racism continues to oppress and threaten communities of color, manifested through this country’s systems of education, employment, housing, mass incarceration, and – unmistakable in light of recent events – police brutality. This is the plague spread by America’s criminal justice system that makes it a dangerous act for people of color simply to live their lives. It would be the shame of this nation if the United States weren’t built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans forcibly taken from their land.

One thing I could take pride in for the last decade was Minneapolis, my adopted hometown since 2010. Previously I had lived in Milwaukee, Madison, and Atlanta – all beautiful (and flawed) cities in their own right. But the Twin Cities were something else, a glimmer of progressivism in a country so often intent on looking backward. The parks, biking, public transportation, and majestic landscape were an everyday haven, allowing me to drag myself from my home in Near North to my job in Edina on a nearly daily basis without a car. The music, film, theatre, and literature scenes were vibrant and thriving; Twin Cities residents have always known that art is alive and well in the Midwest. Communities seemed diverse and harmonious: you could rely on neighbors and strangers for help, or at least a sympathetic conversation, if you needed it.

I know now this rosy view of Minneapolis was a reflection of my white privilege. I suspected as much at the time; you’d have to be severely myopic to see the way cops lingered around the intersection of Broadway and Lyndale (but ignored most kinds of drunken mayhem in Uptown) and pretend everything was okay. But I wanted to believe, in the years of Barack Obama’s presidency, that Minneapolis was a sign of where America was going: suffering from a difficult past but working towards progress, visibly unequal but trying to right those wrongs. I wanted to believe that the city’s pseudo-liberal leadership and my semi-diverse (i.e., gentrifying) neighborhood were proof that things were okay and would only get better. The ease with which I convinced myself of that weighs heavily on my shoulders, as it does for a great many white residents of Minneapolis.

To state the obvious: the last few weeks have made it disturbingly clear how stupid my assumptions were. When Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng murdered 46-year-old George Floyd, the city’s noxious history of police violence and racial inequality was thrust violently into the national spotlight. Floyd, who was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina and raised in Houston, was a star tight end and basketball player in high school and college. A rapper and musician, the father of two moved to Minnesota in 2014 and served as a security guard at several venues throughout the Twin Cities. “Knowing my brother is to love my brother,” said George’s brother Philonise. When police were called because Floyd allegedly paid with a counterfeit $20 bill, he did not resist arrest. He begged his murderer, Derek Chauvin, to release his knee from his neck and said, in a phrase that has come to encapsulate America’s racism, “I can’t breathe.” A preliminary autopsy (conducted by a state-led criminal justice system complicit in the ongoing slaughter of black and brown people) suggested that underlying health conditions and “potential intoxicants” led to his death (fucking potential – they’re not even trying to cover up the victim-blaming). An independent autopsy arranged by Floyd’s family later revealed that his death was “a homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain” – asphyxia that lasted nearly nine minutes as Derek Chauvin’s knee stayed pressed against George Floyd’s throat.

Black people are 13 times more likely to be killed by Minnesota police than white people, accounting for more than sixty percent of the victims of police shootings since 2009. Merely remembering the names Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and Thurman Blevins gives human faces to those statistics. (And the killings of Justine Ruszczyk and Chiasher Fong Vue make it clear that the MPD’s bloodlust is not strictly colorblind.) Racial inequality is more pronounced here than almost anywhere else in the country, as the typical black family earns less than half as much as the typical white family in Minneapolis. In the wake of Floyd’s death, national news outlets have made these facts known to the world – facts that should have been unavoidable long beforehand, and which more of the community (myself included) should have worked to resist.

The multitude of violent, chaotic forces besieging our city is staggering. White supremacists roam the streets after “curfew,” trying to stoke fear and hatred. Friends and loved ones who live in neighborhoods throughout south Minneapolis find weapons, supplies for committing arson, suspicious vehicles, deluded white men who think their toys lend them some kind of legitimacy. These diversionary tactics are meant to delegitimize the revolutionary force of the movement, distracting from activists in the Twin Cities who employ property damage and expropriation to foment an uprising. The chaos is heightened instead of alleviated by the murderous pigs who have little interest in restoring law and order. (Some people, I’m sure, will take issue with the word “pigs.” I agree it’s not very accurate. American Nazis? The modern-day KKK? A 21st-century lynch mob? There are more appropriate options.) The reasons why the Minneapolis police ignore their supposed duty of upholding peace – instead opting to shoot tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets at primarily peaceful protesters – are obvious: the agendas of the American police and white supremacists are generally the same. The MPD has done nothing to convince us this isn’t the case. 

And yet my pride in Minneapolis continues to grow. What I’ve seen in the aftermath are peaceful protests at which people come together, undivided by race or by attempts to stoke further animosity; they kneel or chant or march in unison because they refuse to live in a country like this. I’ve seen people converge on Lake Street or Bloomington Avenue armed only with brooms and rubber gloves and trash bags, working together to clean up the mess. I’ve seen people donate money and food and cleaning supplies and homes and vehicles, people that may have not been mobilized in the past. I’ve seen and heard a lot of traumatic things, but also neighbors who stay up all night to keep watch over their street, and business owners who would rather see their property damaged in an act of public demonstration than be complicit. Yes, I had a naïve view of Minneapolis as a blissful city that welcomed everybody, and on the political level that probably was never true; but at the street level, where so many of us are afraid and furious but still working together, that is the Minneapolis I’m seeing now.

If ever there was a clear indication of the time to abolish the police, it’s now. Protests throughout the United States and the world have ignited in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the police have demonstrated, time and time again, their despotic brutality. An eight-year-old girl maced in Seattle. Elderly activists shoved to the ground in Salt Lake City and Buffalo. Peaceful protesters bludgeoned and killed in the street in too many cities to name. To believe that the police are a necessary institution that provides protection and justice is to operate under an assumption of white privilege. For large parts of the American population, the police exacerbate instead of mitigate violence in our communities, and the last week has proven that in shocking, highly visible ways that the people of this country will never forget.  

Photo by Matt Levine

It may seem insignificant to talk about art at a time like this – particularly movies, which have consumed my passion for so much of my life. But this is exactly the time when we need great, radical, angry art to mobilize us, to keep us pissed off at an unjust world. I remember applying to volunteer at the Trylon Cinema the very first week I moved to Minneapolis. I didn’t know anything about it; I saw its schedule online and was blown away by its programming, which included so many political and volatile films. My love for Minneapolis, its art and its people, has been synonymous with my time at the Trylon, which has lasted the entire time I’ve been in this city.

I remember seeing The Battle of Algiers there. Gillo Pontecorvo’s influential 1966 film depicts the resistance of Algerians and the FLN (National Liberation Front) against French colonizers. Used as a lesson in insurgent warfare (and the suppression of it) by both resistance movements and political authorities, The Battle of Algiers systematically portrays how freedom fighters can take down occupying forces (which the American police are). Both sides commit violent actions (with Algerian bombings in the European sector serving as responses to French torture and mass execution), but it’s obvious where the film’s sympathies lie: a coda declares that Algeria ultimately wrested its independence from the French military, presaging decolonization wars in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Mauritania and other countries. The Black Panthers and Palestinian Liberation Organization, among others, used The Battle of Algiers as a textbook of sorts. To see it with an audience at the Trylon was to feel a buzz of insurgency in the air.

At the Trylon, I also saw The Spook Who Sat by the Door, an undervalued 1973 film by Ivan Dixon about the C.I.A.’s first black operative, who drops out of the agency and uses his expertise to train young black freedom fighters in Chicago; and Uptight, Jules Dassin’s late-career masterpiece about a disillusioned young man who, in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, is shunned by his fellow black militants (he favors pacifism over armed resistance) and decides to rat them out to the cops. Both films depict the intense emotional and psychological toll that political resistance takes on individuals, as well as the violent suppression of such tactics by colonizing forces such as the police and military.

Earlier this year, as part of the Trylon’s volunteer programmer series, I had the honor of selecting Peter Watkins’ pseudo-documentary Punishment Park (1971) as my volunteer selection. The first time I saw it, about ten years ago, was a formative political experience for me: I had never seen a movie that so explicitly voiced the atrocities the United States had committed since its foundation and the flimsy rationale for continuing to perpetrate those atrocities into the 1970s. In the film, a group of countercultural prisoners, ranging from black militants to conscientious objectors to academics, artists, and Communists, are rounded up and forced to flee across the California desert. If they make it to a predetermined goal alive, they earn their freedom; but the odds are stacked against them, as the police and military are armed with vehicles, weapons, food and water, and have the right to shoot the prisoners on the spot. Bitterly furious and utterly cynical, the film clearly identifies with the outrage of the pursued leftists, who denounce the Vietnam War and police brutality as riots erupt throughout the country in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination and the suppression of the Civil Rights Movement. The conflict between a small number of dissidents who try to behave justly, and large forces of trigger-happy cowards who take human life instead of dealing with divergent opinions, is portrayed in all of its appropriate fury. But that negativity is only more catalyzing for the audience, who can’t bear to leave the theater and reenter a world so inconceivably cruel. Seeing this film at the Trylon, and then having a tense but cathartic conversation about it in the lobby afterward, was a political awakening all over again: this is a film for our times, as seething in its indignation as 2020 deserves.

It’s not only the Trylon, obviously. There were Mr. Freedom and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (Take One) at the Walker, innovative films about gung-ho American xenophobia and the conflicted, persecuted construction of black identity. There was Crime + Punishment at the Capri, the best documentary I’ve seen about systemic corruption in American police departments and the minute, insidious ways that racism is not only tolerated but enforced within its sphere. There was T-Men at the Heights, which uses a gritty film noir storyline to imply that cops and criminals operate in the same exact ways despite the police department’s veneer of justice (and its impunity to kill at will).

The point is not to commemorate these physical places and the walls that construct them (though obviously, like everyone else, I long for the day when we can return to them). There are countless restaurants, bars, art centers, local stores, and community hangouts that are endangered or already damaged or destroyed, either due to instigators trying to sabotage the movement or to a genuine outpouring of anger and grief at the failed society that America has become (has always been). As James Baldwin said, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it.” The destruction of physical property can be intense, but bricks feel no pain; the destruction of human life by state-sanctioned forces of white supremacy is unforgivable, and that pain is felt by countless people and generations in its wake.

The point is that in commemorating George Floyd and Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Iyanna Dior and Jamar Clark and Thurman Blevins and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and thousands of others … in commemorating them and trying to protect our city, we look to the friendships and pieces of art and conversations that have formed our ideas of justice and solidarity. For me personally, many of those ideas come from movies – the films that radicalized me, shouted furiously at me in the audience, told me never to accept my country’s failures and the racist cops patrolling its streets. These films are what helped instill such boundless pride in my city, which offered to me provocative and demanding viewing experiences on a nearly nightly basis. But from there, my pride and love only grew by deepening relationships with some of the strongest, most dedicated artists, freedom fighters, activists, friends and neighbors I’ve ever known. It’s those people who are now fighting for equality and fending off thuggish cops, white supremacists, forces of hate and divisiveness that have defined this country for too long. I see those activists, friends, and neighbors in this wounded city and believe we can start to be known for something else.

James Baldwin said another thing that bears repeating right now: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”

Edited by Michelle Baroody

“I just wanted to leave, you know, my apartment.”

Artwork by Dan Murphy

Enjoy local artist Dan Murphy’s artwork inspired by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), with its timely title, a quote from the film.

After Hours was scheduled to screen at our favorite repertory theater May 1-3, 2020, and it is now scheduled to screen from July 24-26, 2020. I look forward to seeing it on the Trylon’s screen when we reopen. Counting the days…

You can read more about After Hours and purchase tickets here. And visit trylon.org for punch cards and up-to-date information about all our rescheduled screenings and upcoming programming.

Stay safe, everyone. We miss you!

––Michelle Baroody, Perisphere editor