Rumble in the Bronx screens with Sherlock Jr. at the Trylon from Friday, September 24 to Sunday, September 26. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.
At a certain age, most of us have had the experience where you sit back, take a look around, and wonder, What have I done with my life? Jackie Chan has undoubtedly had no such thought. Having begun acting as a small child in Hong Kong, Kong-sang Chan (aka Jackie Chan), has made more than 130 martial arts films in addition to choreographing stunts in more than 75 of those films. He has fought against the mad skills of famous fighter, Bruce Lee but more infamously, Chan is known for being his own stunt man (This is one reason why many of his films were not filmed in the US -the insurance would be astronomical!). Most of us could not imagine literally risking our lives every day. When asked why he does it, Chan simply stated, “It’s what audiences expect from me.”  To further appease the masses, Chan often includes outtakes at the end of many of his films that show his fallible side, highlighting stunts gone bad and cast bloopers. This is just one example of Chan’s humility and ability to laugh at himself, while still being a professional entertainer.
By the time Chan released the 1995 film Rumble in the Bronx, he had been making movies and taking his life in his own hands for more than 25 years, which gave him all the time he needed to hone his skills. It also gave him the freedom to once again, show his goofy side to audiences through a character who is just another guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, in Rumble, he is dutiful nephew Keung, who wanted to come to America, see his uncle get married, and maybe help out with the family business for a spell. But then, as the title suggests, things get a little out of control. For me, one thing noticeable right away is the campiness of the acting which always makes me giggle a little. Watching the police interact with Chan and other characters suggests the influence of golden era cop shows like Adam-12 and Dragnet. You cannot beat Rumble‘s flat dialogue, lack of facial expression, and cheesy lines, which could be attributed to the English dubbing in the film, but only adds to the film’s comedy. As the plot progresses, I find myself eagerly waiting for Chan to start chopping and kicking-and when he does, it is hard to keep up! Right away, you can appreciate how complicated choreographing the fight scenes can be, especially when Chan is pitted against an entire gang. One of the elements I really appreciate about Chan’s heroes goes back to the earlier point of their fallibility; they get beat up, they don’t land every kick, and they definitely don’t win every fight; he makes them human. Chan’s later fight scenes show his real talent in turning common appliances into tools of destruction. You’ll never look at a refrigerator or shopping cart the same way again, not to mention his use of a windbreaker. His ability to choreograph his stunts and fight scenes so beautifully speaks to his dedication as a filmmaker, with a subtle hint of perfectionism. In the finale, Chan, who reportedly does not know how to swim, finds himself being dragged by a hovercraft on the water, utilizing his tennis shoes as his water skis. According to the outtakes, as a testament to his dedication, Chan accomplishes this stunt with a rubber shoe covering a cast, as an earlier stunt mishap had resulted in a broken foot. Truly, Chan is one of the most talented stunt coordinators in the history of film. It’s no wonder that he has been compared to the comedic likes of Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin. Not just his timing, but also Chan’s ability to be charming, empathetic, and vulnerable give his heroes a human quality that audiences have connected with for 5 decades. Chan has proved himself to be all this, as well as an innovative martial arts master, which makes him both endearing and not to be trifled with.
 Celebretainment, “Jackie Chan thinks his audience ‘expect’ him to do his own stunts,” Associated Press, August 17, 2017, https://apnews.com/article/1f4b876da24b4a04885eb58822034cfc.
Husbands screens on 35mm at the Trylon from Sunday, September 19 to Tuesday, September 21. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.
Husbands zeroes in on the real state of love and sex in our time… Cassavetes, Gazzara, et al., I salute you as fellow liberationists.
–Betty Friedan, 1971 
The brutality with which women are often treated in Husbands––which the film’s bullying macho ambience often seems to endorse (or at least tolerate) more than criticize––turned me against Cassavetes for a number of years, and I still haven’t resolved whether this description of the film qualifies as a misreading.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1991 
For those who view art primarily as a way to monitor political correctness, Husbands is something of an impossible film to deal with. Is it misogynist or feminist? A celebration of belligerent, abusive men or a vicious condemnation of them? Should one align their perspective with Betty Friedan, who organized the Women’s Strike for Equality only two months before Husbands premiered in 1970 and applauded its attack on toxic masculinity? Or with Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the most influential critics of the latter twentieth century, who was rightfully put off by the film’s insistence on detailing the ways its central characters berate, humiliate, use, and ignore the women in their lives? The answer, of course, says more about each individual viewer than it does about those two cultural commentators, or even about the film in question.
John Cassavetes didn’t make movies to get on a soapbox or wring his hands over moral dilemmas. From his directorial debut, Shadows (1958), to at least Love Streams (1984)—if you discount his last directorial effort, Big Trouble (1986), as he did himself—he made films about the messiness of human existence. They were rough and abrasive for that very reason, but also vital and sometimes overwhelmingly powerful. As the godfather of American independent cinema, he made it clear that his characters were not heroes or villains but an exasperating in-between, and political questions of racism, misogyny, or class were not debates to be won but lived experiences to be portrayed with an unflinching eye.
Husbands is, in many ways, Cassavetes’ most extreme film, revealing to us repugnant people with an almost stubborn, unwavering commitment. Even more extreme than the characters’ awfulness, though, is the sense of empathy the film still manages to evoke on their behalf. Yes, they’re detestable—lonely, desperate, loud, abusive, obnoxious, insecure drunks—but we see something painfully human in their mutually-destructive friendships, and we relate to their existential terror at the realization that life, at a certain point, holds no more surprises.
The film starts with a series of still photographs, family snapshots of husbands and wives and children lazing around a pool. The “husbands” in these images are four close friends—Gus (Cassavetes), Archie (Peter Falk), Harry (Ben Gazzara), and Stuart (David Rowlands)—and we get a sense of their boorish personalities even from these photographs: they flex their pathetic muscles, play-wrestle at the side of the pool, beer cans perpetually in hand, their wives lingering in the background. We see Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ real-life wife, in this early montage, her only appearance in the movie; already, Cassavetes indicates how personal the story is meant to be, a ruthless autobiography that one hopes is wildly exaggerated.
The next scene is a funeral—Stuart has died. Even though he was only middle-aged, Stuart’s heart gave out, perhaps because of all the copious drinking. All the black shiny cars and pomp and circumstance “seem pretty dopey for a guy like that,” says Archie. Harry, ushering Stuart’s elderly mom toward the gravesite further ahead, looks back at them jealously—the characters’ personalities, alike on the surface but disastrously unique deep down, are suggested within the first four minutes. “Lies and tensions, that’ll kill you,” Archie tells a perplexed Gus—not smoking or alcohol, he insists, but the lies and tensions of modern life.
Archie’s apologia is not convincing, and his critique of the overlong eulogy at the funeral feels equally insincere (“Say he died too young and that’s all, that’s it”). The artificiality of this early dialogue seems intentional (though the performances were decried as stilted when the movie first came out); these men are terrified at this reminder of their own impending mortality and they focus on anything else to distract themselves. As we’ll come to see, they feel suffocated by their nine-to-five jobs and nuclear families—the very things they were told to aspire to in American life—and claw frantically to break out of them.
Now seems like an appropriate time to emphasize what the film will tell us over and over again: these are not admirable characters. Husbands may provide contexts for their repulsive behavior, but it doesn’t make excuses for them or blame society. If these men are paralyzed by the responsibilities of family and capitalism, that’s largely a result of their own cowardice and insecurity. Any compassion the opening scenes of Husbands engender is immediately offset by a shot of Gus, Harry, and Archie drunkenly singing at the top of their lungs on a city sidewalk—a scene of privileged vulgarity with which we’ll soon become familiar. “We can do anything we want to do,” Archie says on the subway moments later. “So what do you want to do?”
The answer: wrestle each other on busy sidewalks (nearly running over passersby) and play basketball (poorly) at the gym. Afterwards, the men embark on a marathon of binge drinking and casual cruelty. At a dimly lit bar, in a scene that goes on for twelve minutes, they insult each other, force a poor woman to sing and then ridicule her performance, take off their clothes, and chug beer with increasing abandon. The next scene, which lasts nine minutes, shows them vomiting in a narrow bathroom and fighting with each other over absolutely nothing. These back-to-back scenes perfectly encapsulate the movie’s grim audacity: it is a naked portrayal of toxic masculinity at its most destructive.
Shouldn’t a movie about toxic masculinity be hard to watch? Husbands was and is attacked for its long wallow in disgusting male behavior, but it’s very clearly about the ways in which misogyny spreads unabated. Expecting a movie about the violence of patriarchy to be timid and pleasant is absurd at its core. The anger and sadness of a movie like Husbands seems appropriate since it deals with the forces of sexism that have given rise to the Harvey Weinsteins, Andrew Cuomos, Brock Turners, Brett Kavanaughs, Jeffrey Epsteins, et al. of the world.
And yet—Husbands is a film with sudden sparks of humor and bizarreness. Gus, a dentist, treats a patient who’s high on nitrous oxide and steals the scene in which she appears. Harry, an ad man, sits forlornly in his office (a photo of his kids prominent in a striking diopter shot) before one of his colleagues points, giggles, and greets him in a maniacal falsetto. Once the men flippantly decide to jet off to London—having the money and privilege to escape their lives at the drop of a hat—Archie is hit on by a dolled-up socialite with the weirdest line readings one can possibly imagine (delivered by a marvelous Delores Delmar). Even a tragic farewell between Gus and Archie at the end is made absurd when they flippantly exchange toys to give to their kids, negotiating who will be the deliverer of which stuffed animal.
Cassavetes’ label as a gritty realist has never been totally accurate; he’s in love with the process of acting, the spontaneity of the scene, the strangeness of life. His surrealistic tendency is most explicitly presented in Love Streams’ ending, which I won’t ruin here though it involves a stoic dog and a naked old man. Cassavetes’ weakest film, Opening Night, is enlivened by a late scene in which Gena Rowlands hijacks a live theatre performance by forcing Cassavetes into increasingly strange improvisations. (Indeed, Opening Night is a case study in the somewhat irrelevant question of whether or not Cassavetes is a feminist—the film simultaneously presents Rowland’s character, Myrtle, as a victim of showbiz patriarchy and as a hysterical fantasist who can’t control her own life.) The caustic honesty of Husbands is made bearable by the film’s (bleak) sense of humor and its unexpected oddities.
That said, Husbands remains unflinching throughout. After the men’s opening bender, Harry returns home to discover his wife intends to leave him with her mother (who lives in the same house) in tow. Harry forcibly kisses his wife, pushes her down on her knees, and chokes and slaps both her and her mother. Afterwards, Gus and Archie console him in the front yard, bemused but hardly repulsed by his behavior. (This scene has a lot in common with similar moments in Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky , which also stars Cassavetes and Falk as emotionally fragile men who mask their vulnerability with a show of macho violence.) Later, in London, the men try to cheat on their wives with women they pick up at a casino, mostly unsuccessfully; they pretend to be lotharios but are afflicted by their own psychological hang-ups. “My wife used to do that for me,” Harry says as his new lover, Pearl (Jenny Lee Wright), gives him a massage in a hotel room.
Gus, Harry, and Archie pretend for a while that they can live forever in England, completely abandoning their lives and families, but there is no escape. They return to Long Island despondent, a fate like Stuart’s inevitably awaiting them, with little chance for excitement (aside from the narcotic sort) in their future. It all culminates in Gus and Archie’s return to their modest middle-class homes. The final scene is heartbreaking, the clearest indication in the film of how patriarchy spreads from adults to younger generations; the fact that Gus’s kids are played by Cassavetes’ real-life children, Nick and Xan—the latter of whom breaks down in inexplicable tears upon her father’s return—reiterates how painfully personal the film is. Gus’s kids know full well—as children always do in fractured homes—how cruel and inattentive their father is.
I cringe as I write this, but it’s still true: Husbands is devastating because it’s relatable. I hope and I think that my friends and I are nothing like Gus, Harry, and Archie. But I’ve seen this behavior, and I’ve often recoiled from it but said nothing. I’ve seen friends and loved ones drink in a desperate bid to escape the doubts and miseries of their own lives. I’ve seen men who believe that getting drunk is an excuse to use women for their own fleeting satisfaction. I’ve seen people get drunk and insult, demean, and fight others, including the ones closest to them, their innermost aggressions coming out with the aid of endless alcohol. I’ve felt shame the day after I’ve witnessed or enabled behaviors close to what the men in this movie do. I’d be willing to bet most of us have. It’s one of Husbands’ greatest and most disturbing feats that it makes us relive that shame all over again.
Husbands’ raw emotional brutality remains difficult to watch, but it also feels more urgent and necessary than ever. The forces of patriarchy that permeate American life have hardly abated over the last fifty years. Men like Gus, Harry, and Archie continue to hold positions of privilege no matter how cruel and destructive they are. And while large-scale crimes of misogyny—like those committed by Weinstein or Woody Allen or Bill Cosby—have been rightfully condemned, countless smaller instances of patriarchal violence continue to fester, unreported and largely unpunished.
Given the high stakes of Husbands’ subject matter, the film’s vicious and unrestrained tone is something like a caustic balm. The modern state of American independent movies is timid and lackluster for many reasons, but one of them is a hyperaware political correctness—the fear of being labeled sexist or racist or offensive in any way. That’s why ostentatious message movies like Promising Young Woman and Green Book feel the need to utter obvious moral judgments that don’t have much to do with real life; in the process, they demonstrate little sympathy for the lived experiences that victims of sexism or racism actually undergo. Just like Hollywood movies after the rise of the Hays Code in the 1930s felt the need to explicitly punish characters who transgressed their ethical rules, modern American movies are pressured to portray people as noble heroes or rotten villains, dismissing the fact that every human being is a vexing middle ground between the two. In a culture that’s quick to condemn, the ambiguity of human nature is an uncomfortable fact that most movies and other works of art would prefer to sidestep.
Husbands exists squarely in that ambiguous middle ground, which is why it’s so sad and infuriating. The characters here aren’t heroes or villains, victims or perpetrators, but everything at once. Recently, Donald Glover made headlines for claiming (via Twitter), “We’re getting boring stuff and not even experimental mistakes (?) because people are afraid of getting cancelled.” It’s hard to disagree. While cancel culture enables powerful ways for exploited communities to expose the actions of their oppressors, it can also lead to an atmosphere of creative timidity in which depiction of repugnant behavior is mistaken for endorsement.
Cassavetes can be criticized for many things, but timidity is not one of them. Just as feminism in the 1970s was, perhaps, more radical and empowering than it is now, so too was American cinema unafraid to be militant and provocative. Husbands is a perfect (if unlikely) representation of both. So here’s to more movies that are as unpleasant, difficult, raw, and uncompromising as this one. What we see onscreen is disgusting and infuriating. Why don’t some of us feel a similar kind of outrage when we witness such things in real life?
 Betty Friedan, “Unmasking the Rage in the American Dream House,” New York Times, January 31, 1971. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/01/31/archives/unmasking-the-rage-in-the-american-dream-house-the-american-dream.html
 Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) 160.
Drunken Master 2 screens on 35mm at the Trylon from Friday, September 10 to Sunday, September 12. For more information and tickets, visit trylon.org.
Drunken Master 2 is one of the last classic traditional kung fu films the Hong Kong studio system produced. It’s a mishmash of martial arts and filmmaking styles, a text as rich as it is entertaining.
In 1993, Jet Li and Tsui Hark had achieved international recognition for their rendition of the Wong Fei-hung story with Once Upon a Time in China. Wong Fei-hung is one of China’s great folk heroes, a figure of great national pride. Countless iterations of his stories have played in the movie houses of Hong Kong and China. Hark and Li’s take on the classic character was inspired by wuxia films, placing the character in a legendary, superhuman context.
15 years previously, Jackie Chan’s portrayal of Wong Fei-hung in Drunken Master vaulted him to stardom. Although hardly his first film, it is one of the first great articulations of his unique physical comedy. Chan decided for one of his final starring roles before departing for his third and final foray into Hollywood he would revisit the character as a response to Hark’s wuxia-inspired film:
This film will be different! No wires! Before I told Tsui Hark, when you do Wong Fei-hung, make it real. Instead he had everyone flying. It’s like a fantasy. In Drunken Master 2, we only show what we can do, what my stunt men can do.
Fellow kung fu legend Lau Kar-leung was brought onboard to direct. Kar-leung had come up as a fight choreographer for the venerable Chang Cheh and directed several genre-defining masterpieces in his own right. His work in 36 Chambers of Shaolin and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter had become recognizable even in the West by 1994. But perhaps most relevant to Drunken Master 2 was his 1979 classic Dirty Ho, a masterful comedic kung fu film featuring an incredibly athletic and stylized performance from the great Gordon Liu.
Furthermore, Drunken Master 2 is Kar-leung’s second telling of a Wong Fei-Hung story (the original being 1982’s Martial Club, also starring Liu). Hong Kong audiences would also have known Kar-leung from supporting roles and choreography in the original 99-film Wong Fei-hung series. Kar-leung, an actor and martial artist in his own right, also has a supporting role in Drunken Master 2 as “the most decorated soldier ever,” dueling Jackie’s Wong Fei-hung before taking him under his wing.
Much had changed in the intervening 16 years between Chan’s Drunken Masters. In addition to his martial and comedic physical prowess, Chan had become known internationally for his incredible stunt work as epitomized by the Police Story films and Project A. Chan had also become a director, enjoying incredible amounts of success at the box office and during award season. This success garnered him almost total artistic control over his own projects. Contemporaneous reports questioned if Chan’s perfectionism could mesh with Kar-leung’s own, more old school, locked down style.
Hong Kong’s political landscape had changed as well. Drunken Master 2 would ultimately be Chan’s final Hong Kong film (give or take) before the Handover, and it is very much geared towards the mainland market. This is evident from the first frame: a shot of the British consulate in Manchuria. Colonial functionaries and collaborators accost Fei-Hung and his friends and family throughout the film. Chan scolds the sniveling collaborators in the climactic battle scene: “Don’t you know what you’re doing? He’s helping foreigners ship away China’s Treasures. Why help him?”
The plot, catalyzed by a screwball mix-em-up of luggage at a British customs checkpoint, concerns Wong Fei-Hung’s struggle with his mother and father’s dueling expectations of him, specifically over his imbibing of alcohol to bolster his practice of drunken kung fu. His mother (a highlight comedic performance by “Hong Kong’s Madonna” Anita Mui, nine years Chan’s junior) encourages him to drink and fight and his father forbids it. Meanwhile, Fei-Hung and his friends (including a very handsome Andy Lau) uncover a sinister British plot to smuggle priceless Chinese cultural artifacts out of the country with the help of opportunistic Chinese capitalists.
The rumors of on-set tension between Kar-leung and Chan’s sensibilities turned out to be well-founded. Chan fired Kar-leung about two thirds of the way through production. Hong Kong films were still shot chronologically in those days, and though he remains the sole credited director, Kar-leung’s departure is sharply apparent (perhaps accentuated by his character’s death around that point in the runtime). The action scenes preceding it are nimbly directed, but individual shots feature continuous chains of moves from wide angles. The camera moves, but only to show the action from different vantage points.
Once Chan takes over, however, the number of cuts skyrocket, not to mention set-ups and angles, and feats of physical derring-do. Chan and his army of stunt men were famous for incorporating everyday objects into their fights, and the final showdown in the “Steel Factory” utilizes flame throwers, steel rods, and industrial alcohol, among others. The film becomes a much more modern take on the action. Roger Ebert said in his review of the final scene: “this extended virtuoso effort sets some kind of benchmark: It may not be possible to film a better fight scene.” Chan told Fredric Dannen it took him four months to shoot, and it shows.
Because the film reflects its own production, it begins as a very traditional story and becomes more 20th century as it develops. The final set piece of Drunken Master 2 is maximalist filmmaking within the context of a traditional kung fu film, pushing the limits of style and form into the modern world of cinema. Although so-called traditional had been less and less popular since the early 80s, Drunken Master 2 was a smash at the Hong Kong box office. Chan and Kar-leung both won awards for their work.
To capitalize on Chan’s Western popularity, Drunken Master 2 was released in a heavily edited version in the US (although one of the main edits was the removal of the original’s less-than-P.C. ending) as The Legend of Drunken Master. The original cut, being shown at the Trylon this weekend, has not been widely screened in the US.
Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there?
– Wings of Desire opening voiceover
Here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?
– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
I can’t see you but I know you’re here.
– Peter Falk as Peter Falk in Wings of Desire
It might qualify as obsession: I’ve seen Wings of Desire/Der Himmel über Berlin—Wim Wenders’ 1987 film about rebel lovesick angels wading through the rubble of divided Berlin—too many times to count. I don’t remember the first time, but I do remember the best time: at Berlin’s Babylon Kino at Rosa Luxemburg Platz in summer 2012. Wenders was there, signature mop of hair and round tinted glasses, to unveil a sparkly new 25th anniversary restoration on the tremendous screen at the Babylon: this 1929 theatre survived the war, the Soviet era, the DDR, and years of disrepair, now resurrected in a 21st-century Berlin teeming with international hipsters and creatives. The lights dimmed and I sunk into my seat and disappeared into the screen, even more hypnotic than the cinema-altars of the Ziegfeld on 54th Street or Hollywood’s Egyptian.
I fell into the film’s silvery black-and-white aerial shots of Berlin and Marion the trapeze artist floating feather-like through air; joined its tearful living room arguments and motorcycle crash last breaths; walked sweaty through East Berlin dance floors with the on-stage writhing of Nick Cave and Simon Bonney as primal punk backdrop; sipped tea inside kitchens and wandered the light-filled cathedral of Berlin’s Central Library; crossed the River Spree by night and past the remains of once-bustling Potsdamer Platz; braved the No-Man’s Land between the inner and outer walls of the Wall, surveillance towers and sniper guns looming; past murals-in-progress and cars stuck in traffic (R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” video is a Reader’s Digest encapsulation of Wings of Desire); inside heads and hearts and dreams, ambulances screeching. Every now and then, we’re reassured by Peter Falk in the role of fallen angel Peter Falk, offering a priest-like consoling refrain through the cinema screen as confessional: “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here.” In Wings of Desire, no one is ever alone and there is an empathetic ear listening to our joys and pains, extending a gentle invisible hand onto our shoulders to breathe hope back into broken hearts.
Shot on location two years before the fall of the Wall, this is the sexiest and most achingly human film about angels ever made, without the usual sentimentality (and only wink-wink references to wings). Move over, It’s A Wonderful Life and Heaven Can Wait. As the film modulates from the black-and-white POV of how angels see the city into bursts of how humans experience life, it enacts its own Wizard of Oz dance into color. This punch-gut Berlin fairy tale is also a love letter to cinema: a mash-up of film genres with nods to Fellini’s life-as-circus, Rossellini’s neo-realism, Bergman’s existential puzzles, Hitchcock’s voyeuristic predatory camera, American hard-boiled detective noir (complete with fedora and trench coat), Nazi war epics. . . and the list goes on. Deeply haunted by war (Wenders himself was born in August 1945, days after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings), the film weaves blurry decaying documentary newsreels of bombed-out Berlin into its scenes and waking dreams, reminding us of the human stories of war and its aftermath.
Intersubjectivity? I Don’t Even Know You!
Berlin is the first character we encounter in aerial views from planes, rooftops, the gilded goddess atop the Victory Column in Tiergarten. Wenders’ Berlin is more than a city; it offers a map of intersubjectivity: “My stories always begin with places, cities, landscapes, roads. For me, a map is like a script.”Wings of Desire is a hopeful film about the invisible threads that connect us across the postmodern city, that break down walls between rooms and permeate the Wall. Virginia Woolf’s million-dollar existential question—“Here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?”—vibrates through every single body on screen and in the audience, infuses each frame. Wenders offers us a secular spirituality, somewhere between religion and love, built on a profound understanding of others’ emotional and physical presence, urban perambulations of body and mind, an intersubjective ability to hear and know each other and share thoughts. Absolute empathy, akin to love.
The generosity of the film relates to these fantasies of intersubjectivity—the fundamental connectedness between minds and bodies (even when invisible to each other) as the camera-eye moves through alleys and U-Bahn cars, inside circus tents and soundstages, puts the kettle on as we cry and search for love together. And unlike the films and filmmakers that no doubt influenced Wenders (Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, Rossellini’s Rome Open City, or even his New German Cinema compatriot Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz), Wings of Desire is no auteur project with a despotic genius at the helm, but a collaborative one in which several eyes and ears and pens and sensibilities converge into one.
Wenders co-wrote the film with poet-novelist Peter Handke and Claire Denis served as first assistant director (her third collaboration with Wenders, after Paris, Texas and Down By Law). The film’s ensemble is a dream-team of character actors and starlets: Peter Falk as Peter Falk, typecast in Columbo trench coat and fedora, though with the wounded eyes of Cassavetes-era Falk; Bruno Ganz as the fallen besotted angel Damiel in woolen overcoat; Solveig Dommartin as the ethereal yet mortal Marion who flies on the trapeze (Dommartin performed her own stunts!), a double for our human strivings to fly and transcend our bodies, dream new worlds, live intensely, love and be loved. It’s no accident that Wings’ Marion shares a name with that notorious Hitchcock blonde, Psycho’s Marion Crane, and she flies (hello, crane!). Though Wenders is a self-professed film geek, thankfully his Marion transcends Hitchcock’s voyeuristic gaze; she has a complex subjectivity we grow to understand—and she survives.
To imbue the film with dreamlike visuals, Wenders coaxed master cinematographer Henri Alekan out of retirement (most famous for shooting Jean Cocteau’s moody gothic-surrealist masterpiece, La Belle et la Bête/Beauty and the Beast). Alekan originally wanted the angels to be translucent shadows, though ultimately used his grandmother’s silk stockings as a lens filter to create the gauzy muted sepia-toned POV of the angels (truth is always stranger than fiction). Wenders wanted him to capture “this faerie universe through the mystery of light” and in homage to the master DP, the circus at the center of the film bears Alekan’s name.
Both Wenders and Alekan delight in the multiple views into the city as a map of the human, using the camera as a thrilling double for “the eye of the angel.” In a 1988 interview in Film Quarterly, Wenders describes the “vast possibilities for innovation” enabled by “the invention of the guardian angel and the point of view it implied.” He delighted in the angels’ ability to witness all and “listen to people’s thoughts,” enacted through a more dynamic camera than usual, as well as long takes where the angels listen and watch. Through constantly shifting camerawork, we freely inhabit more than one POV: aerial shots of Berlin, alternately invoking wartime aerial maps and the view from 747 windows; deep zooms into living rooms, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s opening to Rear Window; dizzying hand held moments, disorientating and intimate; crane and tracking shots that highlight the near-magic technology of what a camera can do; long takes that linger; shot-reverse shot Hollywood-inspired exchanges between characters, when a kiss is sure to follow; “eye of God” shots that see through floors and walls in a way that no human could.
Though the camera’s eye is akin to godliness, we are in decidedly secular Berlin; Church has been supplanted by the free exchange of ideas within the public library as Cathedral, with its open airy vaulted ceilings. Here angels and humans converge to disappear in stories, history, dreams, light streaming through windows. For Wenders, the library is “a heavenly wonderful place” with “the whole memory and knowledge of mankind united there”—a place where German mainstay Curt Bois as Homer, “storyteller driven to the ends of the earth,” delivers “a liturgy in which no one needs to be initiated into the meanings of words and sentences,” translatable across bodies and time. Wrestling with uncertainty offers a kind of hope and secular communion.
Angels Slumming With Us Humans: Columbo in the Muck
This is also a film about an angel who chooses to lose his wings. Bruno Ganz’s Damiel is no Lucifer branded Satanic and cancelled by holier-than-thou angels; he is restless, curious, grumpy, hungry for the small sensory pleasures of mortal life. He exclaims: “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds. But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence.” He finally refuses, in the Defiant Angel equivalent of teenage angst: “I don’t want to always hover above!” This is his deal with some faceless devil. Let me feel: feel hunger and the satisfaction of a currywurst in my belly, feel cold and the warmth of coffee descending down my throat, cup warm between my hands; let me desire to know another body and feel the connections and desolations and possibilities of love.
No world is too small or beyond fascination for Damiel; while his ponytailed sidekick Cassiel (Otto Sander) catalogs extreme and exceptional circumstances of the human (plane crashes and prisoners, the 1936 Olympics and suicide letters), Damiel rhapsodizes over near-invisible, small particulars of lives: “A woman in the rain who folded up her umbrella and let herself get drenched”; “A schoolboy who described how a fern grows out of the earth”; “A blind woman who sensed my presence.” His is a dream of small pleasures and pains, “to be able to say ‘Ahh’ and ‘Oh!’ and ‘Ouch!’ instead of ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen.’” His desire is for sensory presence, to wiggle his toes, feel an itchy sweater against his skin, not know an outcome, take risks, transgress against the angel’s directive to “look, gather, testify, verify, preserve.” To live and fall and scrape his knee, “to know what no Angel knows” in a world not beholden to God.
Damiel conducts the film’s orchestra of inner monologues, confiding in fellow angel Cassiel that “to watch is not to look down from above, but at eye level” (a political statement, especially as spoken while walking between the outer and inner walls of The Wall, guards holding AK47s in the background)—a dream of that connecting thread of consciousness that eliminates hierarchies between mortal and angelic, superstar and superfan. Rendering us all beautifully human and searching for that amorphous but palpable thing called love (Wenders is an old-fashioned romantic and I am too). These are angels with dreams of human relatability, who use their powers of intersubjective eavesdropping to venture into the hearts and minds of humans in mundane-joyous-painful moments, and then descend into full-color mortal life with its shocks of blood and pain and inevitable death. And wow, does mortal coffee taste good.
Who better to share a cup of black coffee with than Peter Falk, interlocutor between the angelic and the humans, playing himself? He arrives on the scene costumed in hard-boiled trench and fedora (“very Humphrey Bogart”), echoes of his signature role Columbo (“Is that Columbo?” wonder passersby). He’s an unassuming Everyman detective who could be anyone and no one, who doesn’t worship at the altars of superstardom or American exceptionalism. He is recognizable yet relatable: he doesn’t want to look like or be anyone in particular. Walking onto his WWII film set, surrounded by extras (he wonders “if they’re Jewish”), Falk argues with a costumer as he tries on a series of hats, none of which feel right. Looking into a full-length mirror, his inner monologue proclaims: “I want to look anonymous . . . melt into the crowd.”
Falk becomes a conduit between angels and humans, a foil to our twin angels Damiel and Cassiel: “familiar to everyone and suspect to no one.” Falk’s appeal to Damiel as Compañero (“I can’t see you but I know you’re here”) becomes his refrain and Wenders’ manifesto, a speaking out to the audience. They know we’re here, watching, hoping for connection and maybe even a dash of transcendence. And this desire for connection, for community, for contact, has perhaps rarely been so acute or poignant as during our pandemic years of social distancing and its alienations. Dare I say it: this is the film we all need right now.
Film as Collaboration with the Audience: Seeing Together and the Stories That Save Us
Wenders invites us into a collaboration so that the film we experience is, in part, the film we’ve created with him. In a 1988 interview, he described his desire to “give the spectator the freedom to interact with the film and construct it according to one’s own perspective. . . [my films] first come together in the head of the spectator. . . . they do not always point their finger at something and say ‘You will see this now and nothing else!”Wings doesn’t tell us what to see or how to feel, allows our senses and perspectives to be part of the filmmaking experience. This is the opposite of classical Hollywood cinema in which on-screen characters and audience members alike are objects of a controlling eye and hand, the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” Great and Powerful Oz of the auteur.
Wenders has also said: “I prefer movies that ask me to see.” This film has always felt like a beautiful generous invitation to me, to you, to the audience, to take part in the everyday magic all around us – and to open our senses to the mundane experiences that Damiel finds extraordinary. To sip every cup of caravan coffee with the same wonder as the first time it touched tongue and lips. Similarly, the end of the film and Marion’s final convergence with Damiel in the bar (Nick Cave show persisting off-screen, through the wall) is also an intimate moment of encounter with us as the audience. As with Jean Seberg’s confrontational close-up look into our eyes in the final shot of Godard’s Breathless, Solveig Dommartin as Marion looks directly at us and says “Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand.”
This final invitation by Marion happens in a shot-reaction shot: within the diegetic space of the film, she looks into Damiel’s eyes—and in color! Though like Seberg’s gaze at the end of Breathless, she’s looking directly at us, the film audience. And says: we’re more than just the two of us now. 1+1=3, approaching infinity. This is simultaneously an invitation to Germans on the eve of reunification, an appeal to humans everywhere, and a direct address to the bodies breathing and thinking and squirming in the cinema theater, to make the future real now. This is a hopeful return to where the film begins, an incantation of secular intersubjectivity in which the connecting thread is love.
Wenders began his career as a landscape painter and still has a vexed relationship with teleological narrative storytelling, far preferring anti-narrative “daydreaming” without a beginning or end. He describes how “the relationship between stories and images is like the story of a vampire who tries to suck the blood out of images. Images are quite sensitive, like snails that pull back into their shells when you touch their feelers” whereas “stories give people the feeling that there is meaning, that behind the inscrutable disarray of all phenomena there is a hidden order in which everything has its place.” And yet he admits that stories are crucial for our survival; they “help us to overcome our worst fears: that there is no God, that we are nothing but tiny oscillating particles with perception and consciousness, lost in a universe that remains beyond our conception.” Ultimately, “Stories are a substitute for God” and “Stories make life bearable.”
Wings of Desire is both sensitive snail-like flow of images and vampiric story that gives structure and hope to our days—an elegant, generous, collaborative structure of feeling that makes life more bearable for us all.
Gut, Taja. “Das Wahrnehmen einer Bewegung” (“The Perception of Movement”). Individualität 19 (1988). Reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition. Ed. Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Paneth, Ira. “Wim and His Wings.” Film Quarterly 42.1 (1988). Reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition. Ed. Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Wenders, Wim. “Impossible Stories” (1982 lecture in Livorno, Italy). Reprinted in The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations with Wim Wenders. Translated by Michael Hofmann. London: Faber & Faber, 1991.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London and New York: Harcourt, 1925.
Casey Jarrin is a writer, photographer, and outrageous optimist in the age of Tinder and drones, Reddit and pandemic. Her poems, stories, and essays on art as empathy machine have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Washington Square Review, KGB Literary Review, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Eire/Ireland, YorkMix, and the Walker Art Center’s Third Man Project. She grew up in 1980s NYC and moved to Saint Paul to teach film at Macalester before escaping academia to run Live Mind Learning. She hopes to move back to Berlin with her black cat Lucius and partner Erik. Trylon is her favorite place on earth.
 Wim Wenders, “Impossible Stories,” 1982 lecture in Livorno, Italy. As reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition,ed. Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 34.
 Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (London and New York: Harcourt, 1925), 127.
Night Movesscreens at the Trylon Cinema as part of theFlorida Noir series from August 13 to 17. For more information and tickets, please visit the Trylon’s website at trylon.org.
“How I hate these goddamn machines,” a disembodied voice speaks from the answering machine on the desk of private eye Harry Moseby, played effortlessly by Gene Hackman— an American icon whose name I regularly Google to make sure he’s still alive. This is the opening scene of Arthur Penn’s 1975 New Hollywood noir Night Moves, and while the inciting incident is introduced as Moseby scribbles the info about a missing daughter of a wealthy Hollywood widow, it’s also a clue about what’s on the mind of novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp besides crimes and investigations: the misery of getting old, out of touch, and ornery.
Sharp wrote Night Moves as he approached 40, and Moseby tells various characters throughout the film that he is 40; both Hackman and Penn were well over 40 and 50, respectively, during filming. Really, none of the male characters in the film are spring chickens. Even James Woods in a supporting role in his late 20s looks already hardened by a life of hard labor, unresolved anger, and/or his future politics. And nearly every single one of them has disgusting lust in their eyes when in the presence of the aforementioned missing daughter—a flirtatious and lost 16-year-old named Delly, played by Melanie Griffith in her feature debut. Well, all of them except Moseby, who’s just dead set on just returning her to her mother Arlene per his assignment. And while our protagonist seems to have more scruples than most of the others on screen, he’s really just as lost as Delly.
Moseby doesn’t seem to have a passion for much of anything except talking about chess or his first job from several years ago. A retired Oakland Raider that spends more time staking out adulterers than loving his wife Ellen (Susan Clark), it’s likely as much a mystery to him as it is to us why he fills his days the way he does. He doesn’t want to go to the movies, he doesn’t like the name of his own P.I. business, and he doesn’t even want to watch the game on the bigger TV in his house, settling instead for a tiny black-and-white set in the upstairs den. Moseby doesn’t seem to be very interested in living life well, and life doesn’t seem very interested in treating Harry Moseby well either. When he and Ellen (whom Jonathan Murray aptly described as “femme fatalistic rather than fatale” in Cineaste) get into a row in their dimly lit L.A. kitchen, Harry tells his wife he can’t stay and work it out— he has to go to Florida to find Delly. “So you can pretend you’re solving something?” Ellen retorts in a huff.
While Orpheus descended to the underworld with determination to bring Eurydice back to life, Moseby flies to the Sunshine State with an apathetic stare and a blank check from his temporary employer. Here he meets the carefree but quietly damaged Paula (a magnetic Jennifer Warren), who is clearly harboring at least one important secret, but since the missing girl is so easily found, Moseby doesn’t really see a reason to dig any deeper. What he does see, however, is an avenue for human connection—something he had clearly thought closed off to him for good once his marriage stalled.
And that’s really where the title of the film comes in: It’s a curious name, especially since the majority of the story takes place in the breezy bright daytime. But when Paula asks Harry late in the evening about an old famous game of chess he’s replaying on his travel board, the pun and significance of the moniker becomes clear. “Three little knight moves” are what this great chess player of the 1920s didn’t see coming, and if he had, he could have circumvented the checkmate. No one can ever really see what’s coming; we’re all just making moves in the dark, just like a clueless gumshoe in the throes of a midlife crisis in a great noir.
And also like any great noir, even when the initial crime is solved, nothing much else is. Penn’s direction and Sharp’s script (Ebert called the latter at once “literal and elliptical”) do quick work to both streamline and obfuscate the mysteries and revelations at various points in the film. In one of the film’s most affecting shots, this metaphor becomes quite literal, and Moseby arrives at one conclusion only to find himself ultimately driving around in agonizing circles. Instead, Night Moves feels more like when one hits another mile marker on the way to the grave and wonders if neither the journey nor the destination are all that fulfilling.
And we all know what sweltering place besides Florida is full of sin, torture, and multiple circles.
 Jonathan Murray, “Night Moves,” Cineaste Magazine, winter 2017, https://www.cineaste.com/winter2017/night-moves.
 Roger Ebert, “Great seventies film noir,” RogerEbert.com, March 26, 2006, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-night-moves-1975.
Safe screens at the Trylon Cinema on Thursday, April 29 at 7 pm. Chosen by long-time Trylon volunteer Dave Gomshay, the film is part of our Volunteer Programmers series. To purchase tickets or learn more about this screening, visit our website at trylon.org.
Safe had a huge impact on me when I first saw it during its 1995 release. It screened at the recently opened Lagoon Cinema, and I distinctly remember just sitting there, kinda dazed and shaken as the end credits rolled, rather than hopping up and rushing out of the theater as I usually did. Turns out it was the perfect movie for me at that time in my life; I needed to see it and it left me kind of broken up in all the best ways. I hope you are all left similarly discombobulated after watching Safe at the Trylon on July 29.
Safe presents one of the most visceral depictions of the actual experience of anxiety and illness that you’ll find in any film. The mystery of why the meek and people-pleasing Carol White (sympathetically embodied by Julianne Moore) has suddenly become acutely allergic to seemingly everything around her might never be answered to your satisfaction, but all the questions you’re left pondering are posed in such a provocative manner that it doesn’t really matter. By design, you’re never quite sure where writer/director Todd Haynes is taking Carol and the viewer, and this generates a compelling atmosphere of ENCROACHING MENACE and EXISTENTIAL DREAD, building to a TOTALLY BLEAK (but totally appropriate) conclusion. And yes, I mean all of this as praise!
It’s crazy that this was only Todd Haynes’ second feature. His direction is so controlled, his style so vivid, his set pieces so masterfully composed. Julianne Moore––also early in her career––offers a chilling, heartbreaking performance––one of her absolute best. If award shows offered a subcategory of Best Acting that recognized Outstanding Achievement in Onscreen Hyperventilation, she’d get my vote. I’m not familiar with any other of Peter Friedman’s acting roles, but his portrayal of an unctuous and grossly self-absorbed New Age health guru is so distressingly pitch perfect that it’s earned him a top spot on my current list of Top 5 Movie Characters I Would Most Like To Punch In Real Life. And, hey, there’s that great character actor and independent film stalwart James LeGros, providing brief but welcome relief as a gentle and light-hearted new friend to Carol late in the film amidst a host of otherwise condescending loved ones, exasperated doctors, and overconfident “experts.”
Safe is a horror movie about our chemical-laden, compromised environment, a harrowing case study of a sheltered naif’s bewildering breakdown, and a dark satire of both American affluence and vacuous self-help fads that turn the practitioners into the agents of their own suffering. Safe is so MUCH. I’m psyched to settle in at the Trylon with folks who will come to this timely classic for the first time as well as returning viewers who are willing to wallow in discomfort once again. Hooray!
DAVE’S RECIPE FOR “LESTER” COSPLAY
Though onscreen for less than thirty seconds, appearing far in the distance and without any lines of dialogue whatsoever, the character of Lester quickly became the breakout fan favorite when Safe debuted. With his enigmatic charisma and stylish “hyperaller-chic” fashion sense, Lester captured the imagination of viewers and led many to ask, “How can I make that look work for me?” Here are the ingredients and steps that will unlock YOUR inner Lester:
(1) Fencing mask, new or used, preferably with silver or white mesh
(1) Balaclava, black, extra large
(1) Long-sleeved shirt, light blue
(1) Short-sleeved shirt, white with several green, mahogany, and black stripes. It will likely be difficult to find a shirt that exactly matches the design of the one worn in the film, so just do your best.
(1) Pair of fingerless gloves, black
(1) Pair of finger-having gloves, white, tight-fitting
(1) Pair of sweatpants, white, not too baggy but not too tight
(1) Pair of tube socks, black
(1) Pair of hiking boots, red
Put on the sweatpants.
Put on the long-sleeved shirt, and put the short-sleeved shirt on top of that.
Put on the tube socks and tuck the ends of the sweatpants into the top of the socks.
Put on the hiking boots.
Put on the finger-having gloves, and on top of them put on the fingerless gloves.
Put on the fencing mask.
Put on the balaclava over the fencing mask, being careful not to stretch it out too much but leaving enough room for your mesh-masked face to show through.
Ta-da! You are Lester! To really wow your admirers, practice your posture and gait so as to mimic Lester’s signature style. It is suggested you imagine you are a newborn fawn trying to walk on its hind legs like a human. Good luck, and be SAFE!
On January 7, 2019, Lebanon lost a pioneering filmmaker, journalist, photographer, artist, and political thinker with the passing of Jocelyne Saab. Saab was born in Beirut on April 30, 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, when the Levant underwent numerous changes: Syria and Lebanon became independent from France, Palestinians were displaced by the Nakba of Israel’s violent birth, and Arab nationalism temporarily became a project of decolonization, a socialist struggle against the former and emerging imperial powers of the new world order. Film became a language of resistance, a push against the images of these formerly colonized nations building their own scene out of the pieces. Lebanon turned to the west for economic and political influence, and for a time, the nation’s wealthy thrived on a high of capitalism’s shiny exterior, before the crash of civil war became a dominant and overwhelming reality from 1975 to 1990, and again in 2006 with another Israeli invasion.
Saab was an early auteur of Beirut, filming its concrete structures, detailing its bricks, its corners, its depth, its breadth, its destruction in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and its rebuilding after the civil war. Saab’s films dig beneath the layers of colonial glamor and the superficiality of 1960s Beirut, once called the “Paris of the East,” to consider the people who live on this coast of the Mediterranean and inhabit Beirut’s streets, experience its trauma, its beauty, its contradictions. “Like many Lebanese filmmakers of her generation, it was during the early years of the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990) that Saab’s films took root,” Dalia Mostafa argues in her chapter on Saab’s work in Ten Arab Filmmakers: Political Dissent and Social Critique.“The context of war,” Mostafa continues, “ironically, made possible her contribution as a war reporter, journalist, photographer, and filmmaker.” Learning film through documenting violence in Beirut, Saab anticipated and resisted the colonial and western gaze, using poetry, close-ups, and dialogue to challenge repetitive images of the Arabic-speaking world as always in a state of chaos.
The poet Etel Adnan––Saab’s longtime collaborator and the narrator of Beirut, Never Again, the first film in her Beirut trilogy––names Saab as one of Lebanon’s most important and influential filmmakers. Adnan writes:
Jocelyne had managed to convey the atmosphere of the early days of the war. . . . With her political courage, moral integrity and profound intelligence, Jocelyne instinctively grasped the essence of the conflict. . . . [N]o document on that war ever rivalled the three films Jocelyne made about Lebanon. Hers is a rare and precious oeuvre, valuable for the history of Lebanon but also for its relevance beyond its borders; it should be part of university courses on contemporary sociology and politics.
Many of Saab’s films center on Beirut, but as Adnan describes, her cinematic “oeuvre” extends beyond the artificial borders of the city and the nation. Saab’s political and social critiques begin in Lebanon, but her documentary work took her across the Arabic-speaking world. From an interview with Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi to an intimate day on the Mediterranean Sea with Yasser Arafat and the PLO, Saab’s early films capture revolutionary Arab leaders as well as children and women training to join the resistance, exemplified in Children of War (1976) and Palestinian Women (1974).
Mostafa argues that after the release of What’s Going On?, Saab’s feature-length narrative from 2010, the filmmaker wanted to film the city as no one sees it “in this age of globalization, where everything looks the same.” Saab suggests, “‘The city has become dull. I’m the one who has filmed the city as beautiful, the beauty which no one is able to see anymore.’” While Saab refers to the city in 2010––decades after the moments she filmed in the 1970s and 80s––her remarks speak to the Beirut she filmed in her days as a journalist, capturing young Lebanese children and Palestinian women committed to the struggle, images of Beirut in ruins amidst ongoing unrest during what’s typically dubbed a civil war. In her work, Saab has always filmed a version of Beirut that is completely her own––from the present or the past, between fact and fiction.
Our summer series focuses on Beirut, coinciding with and remembering the one-year anniversary of the devastating Beirut Port explosion by presenting documentary footage of the city at various moments in the past five decades. In particular, we look at films that recall, reconstruct, and capture the beauty and destruction in the city’s history and its present, imagining a different future. In Lebanese cinema after the civil war, there is often a rehearsal of the archive, a repetition of war’s trauma, its ruptures, and its wounds. While some might argue the war fashioned the cinematic impulse in Lebanon, we highlight the work of filmmakers like Saab whose works show us what that impulse looks like through the eyes of those who experienced it, rather than those who simply reported it. Saab’s films resist catharsis for the audience, refusing the viewer an easy identification with the images they see onscreen.
“I began by making film reports, documentaries, and I didn’t come to fiction until much later,” Saab explained in 2010. “The boundaries between the two aren’t very clear-cut, however, and there are often documentary elements in fiction films and vice versa.” Capturing reality while also calling continual attention to the ways in which film constructs our reality through images, a picture of fact that is shaped, framed, and edited by the filmmaker, Saab’s work seizes moments in Beirut’s history without declaring them undeniable or eternal fact. Her films make the viewer aware of the filmmaking apparatus and the ways that the camera’s lens mediates reality––the images are real, but Saab does not show them for sympathy, for a passing interest in cathecting to something one has seen onscreen and then moving beyond it. Instead, she brings focus to the situation of Beirut, in the 1970s, 80s, or the 2000s, making films that take the time to consider the possibilities of the city rather than lingering on its destruction.
That said, Saab’s films often contain graphic images of suffering and violence perpetrated on men, women, and children. At Mizna, we are careful when screening images of war and violence. Programming works from and about Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) artists and lives, we must constantly grapple with what it means to put certain stereotypes and narratives on display, always thinking through how we might tell the very real story of violence during the Lebanese civil war, for example, without reproducing the idea that “they’ve just been at war for centuries over there.” Much of the time, we skip images of gratuitous violence, because they do little more than reproduce onscreen western essentialisms about “the Middle East”; they reiterate the western fantasy that endless war is a result of desert temperaments and ancient religious feuds, rather than colonialism, resource extraction, western foreign policy, and capitalist greed. We often ask ourselves, how do we put images of violence and war, past and present, onscreen without reproducing well-worn ideas about life in the SWANA region? How do we balance the need for a larger audience to see destruction and cultivate solidarity without reproducing violence to bodies and places? And how do we move beyond representing violence to seeing what emerges from resilience, resistance, and ruins?
When we view documentary films, we have the experience that we are seeing into the lives of others, as if we are witness to an unmediated view of their world and its hardships, its rhythms. We feel like we’ve really accomplished something by understanding the situations of the downtrodden, or we’ve achieved glory by witnessing the triumphs of those onscreen. Filmmaker Jill Godmilow captures this mode of passive spectatorship and its dangers in an interview from 1997, when she suggests:
The audience is invited to believe: “I learn from this film because I care about the issues and people involved and want to understand them better; therefore, I am a compassionate member of society, not part of the problem described, but part of the solution.” The documentary film knits us into a community of “we”––a special community by dint of our knowledge and compassion . . . The real contract, the more hidden one, enables the viewer to feel: “thank God that’s not me.” Thank God that’s not me, saddled with two Downs syndrome children and on welfare, or dying of AIDS, or downsized out of a job, and, in the historical film, thank God that’s not me who had to send all three sons from our struggling Illinois family farm to fight to the their death on the battlefield of Gettysburg.
Or perhaps, in the streets of Beirut. Susan Sontag’s well-known critiques in Regarding the Pain of Others resonate with Godmilow’s warning, as she argues that “photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.” Calling attention to discourses of fact and fiction in documentary images, both Godmilow and Sontag articulate something important about the ways that audiences engage with the pain and death of others in photographs and film, and they argue that passive spectatorship allows these images to become tied to the very rhetoric that creates and reproduces violence: they “reiterate” and “simplify.” In the context of a place like Lebanon, images of war and violence repeat and reproduce well-worn narratives of destruction, and more dangerously, they create an “illusion of consensus” for those who see certain representations of this violence, because they insist on a type of viewing that produces a false sense of solidarity among viewers while actually just creating a feeling of “Thank God that’s not me.”
Saab’s films, and the films in this summer’s Beirut-focused film series refuse this kind of passive spectatorship, and they ask the viewer to engage with their own practices of looking. Comparing Saab’s work to that of Egyptian director Oussama Fawzi, who died within two days of Saab in January 2019, Joseph Fahim writes that both filmmakers “presented confrontational portraits of their home countries. Their films deviated from convention, combining raw realism with surrealism while shattering stereotypical representations of their nations.” He argues that “[i]n her Beirut trilogy––Beirut, Never More (1976), A Letter from Beirut (1979) and Beirut, My City (1982), [sic] Saab began her career-long quest of probing the individual’s relationship with their cities, including their fictitious histories, their uncertain present and their profound psychological impact.” These films are not for passive consumption, they are meant to “probe” the viewer’s notion of fact and fiction––they are not meant to educate, but “deviat[e] from convention” by blending reality with its most “surreal” moments, making the viewer consider their own complicity and position as a spectator to violence.
According to Saab, she belonged to “the generation that started looking for our roots, looking to see why we lost them.” At Mizna, we began planning this film series to honor that impulse and to make space for the mediations of Beirut’s auteur, who passed away before the pandemic further exposed the incredible inequalities many of us ignore in our daily lives and before an explosion in Beirut’s harbor, during waves of anti-government protests and rising COVID-19 cases, transformed (and continues to transform) Beirut’s cityscape. Recognizing the importance of her work, the Association des Amis de Jocelyne Saab, a volunteer-run nonprofit, has worked for multiple years toward “the restoration and the wide dissemination of the artistic heritage of French-Lebanese artist Jocelyne Saab.” We are thrilled to partner with this organization to present some of Saab’s early documentary films. Alongside Saab’s films, we have programmed the work of contemporary filmmakers who take the same time and care in filming Beirut in the past and the present, artists like Mai Masri, Jean Chamoun, Ghassan Salhab, and Jalal Toufic. This summer series honors these filmmakers as much as it honors Beirut and all of its encounters.
Saab’s films Children of War (1976) and Palestinian Women (1974) screen with Mai Masri and Jean Chamoun’s War Generation: Beirut (1988) in June, and Saab’s Beirut trilogy, including Beirut, Never Again (1976), Letter from Beirut (1978), and Beirut, My City (1982) screen together in July. See https://mizna.eventive.org/welcome for virtual tickets and trylon.org for in-person screenings.
 Dalia Said Mostafa, “Jocelyne Saab: A Lifetime Journey in Search of Freedom and Beauty (Lebanon),” Ten Arab Filmmakers: Political Dissent and Social Critique, Ed. Josef Gugler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2015), 35.  Etel Adnan, “For Jocelyne,” Out of the Shadows: Jocelyne Saab, from Sabzian, 2014, https://www.sabzian.be/text/for-jocelyne.  Mostafa, “Jocelyne Saab,” 44.  From Mostafa, “Jocelyne Saab,” 45.  Olivier Hadouchi, “Documenting and Telling the Torments of the World,” Out of the Shadows: Jocelyne Saab, trans. Sis Matthé, from Sabzian, 2014, https://www.sabzian.be/text/documenting-and-telling-the-torments-of-the-world.  Jill Godmilow and Ann-Louise Shapiro, “How Real Is the Reality in Documentary Film?,” History and Theory 36, no. 4 (December 1997): 83, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2505576.  Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Picador, 2003), 6.  Joseph Fahim, “A tale of two film mavericks: Jocelyne Saab and Oussama Fawzi,” Middle East Eye, January 24, 2019, https://www.middleeasteye.net/features/tale-two-film-mavericks-jocelyne-saab-and-oussama-fawzi.  Fahim, “A tale of two film mavericks.”  Rebecca Hillauer, “Jocelyne Saab,” Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers, trans. Allison Brown, Deborah Cohen, and Nancy Joyce (Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press, 2005), 173.  “Association des Amis de Jocelyne Saab––Jocelyne Saab’s Friends Association,” Association des Amis de Jocelyne Saab, accessed June 19, 2021, https://jocelynesaabasso.com/.
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.
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
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).
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.
Raymond Williams, The Year 2000 (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 188-189.
Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Routledge, 2003), 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”).
In Film Comment (July 1973), 40.
Gary Giddens, “‘Trafic’: When Tati Drove Himself to the Edge,” New York Sun, 8 July 2008. Available here.
Ian MacDonald Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (Chicago Review Press, 2005), 221.
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.
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.
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. 2 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/. 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 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. 6 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.