April 21, 2012
Great to see so many people enjoyed my RPIG/Solmukohta report (at least relative to my usual traffic).
I take this as a cue to resume blogging for a while, with somewhat shorter entries.
This semester I have presented on 3 diverse topics at 3 very different academic conferences. According to my CV, they were:
• “Adventures in Stagnation: Gottfried Kolditz’s Unfilmed DEFA Project Zimtpiraten (1984)” At: Northeast Modern Language Association Conference 2012. Rochester, NY, March 15-18, 2012.
• “DEFA and the Third World: A Taxonomy of Transnationalisms” At: Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference 2012. Boston, MA, March 21-25, 2012.
• “Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop Role-Playing Game Combat.” At: Role-Playing in Games Seminar. Tampere, Finland, April 10-11, 2012.
So, East German pirates, transnational film theory as applied to East German films regarding the Third World, and how tabletop role-playing combat frames time and bodies. I’ll leave all that to the reader for digestion.
Writing projects dominating the rest of my schedule until the end of April include:
1. My final dissertation chapter: Dyer on DEFA: White Labor Power in East German Musicals
…in which I argue for a critical race theory that can address the appropriations made by sorta-well-meaning East German musicals — particularly Revue um Mitternacht (1962, above) and Meine Frau macht Musik (1958). Some use blackface, exoticized revue sequences and the juxtaposition of free jazz as an East German progressive phenomenon (really?) vs. the oppressive big band revue music of the evil capitalists of yesteryear. A confusing hodge-podge to unpack to say the least. Oh, and I use Richard Dyer’s theories a lot.
2. The finished article on DEFA made-for-TV pirate films that I presented in embryonic form at NeMLA. It’s about DEFA’s willingness to adopt new genres and ideologically suspect material in order to compete for increasingly scarce East German TV eyeballs. Gojko Mitic makes one swarthy pirate.
3. A co-authored article with my advisor Barton Byg on film education in Germany: Divided Dirigisme: Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies. We are presenting this work in Hong Kong in May and I am otherwise plowing through catalogs of student films, statements and charters inaugurating film schools and other items to get a sense of how German film education fits into larger pictures of German education across the Bundesländer.
Many interesting questions buzzing about me on my laptop, and so little time until the end of the semester to answer them. Here’s to a successful end-of-April push!
September 27, 2011
Dear Family, Friends, Colleagues and Other People Who Might Know Me or (Because It’s the Internet) Don’t,
I thought I’d type up a quick summary of what’s going on with me this fall of 2011.
While economic institutions lurch around their avaricious withdrawal of all capital from 98% of the world’s population, poor/plucky little me is heading out onto the German/film job market. This was something I knew since the spring, but the visceral fact of the matter hit home over the weekend at the German Studies Association 2011 conference in Louisville, KY. Yes, there are jobs. Yes, there will be fierce competition among colleagues for them. Yes, I stand a chance at maybe getting one.
That being said, I’ve found myself involved with too many projects and loose ends to wrap up as I turn my attention to the timely completion of my long-overdue dissertation and the endless writing of cover letters, solicitation of information, etc. In response, Kat and I have formed a solidarity pact to keep the various other forces at bay.
So what does this mean?
If you are involved on a project with me, I will endeavor to keep my deadlines, side of the bargain, etc. If you are my friend, I will attempt to keep appointments to see you. But if it seems like I’m a little spacy, punch-drunk, disorganized or whatever, please keep in mind that I’m now engaged in an existential proxy battle for my future while trying to keep all these commitments.
Thanks for your understanding!
(The Guy in the Black Hat)
June 17, 2010
After a day straining my eyes at the Bundesarchiv with microfiches detailing debates about film as a “kulturpolitisches Instrument,” it was nice to go to Potsdam and catch up with a friendly acquaintance.
Rainer Simon, one of the most prominent DEFA directors in the 1980s, invited me over to his art-bedecked apartment to talk shop and watch the World Cup.
While I hold much of our conversation in strict confidence, I can say he’s doing quite well: he was at a film festival in Guadalajara, and intends on re-visiting Mexico via Ecuador this fall if all goes right. He also foresees being in the U.S. for an extended stay in 2011, which may mean his films will be screened wherever he’s at. As a foreign director working in Mexico, he finds himself revisiting Sergei Eisenstein and his “failed” project ¡Que Viva México! (1931), which never does one harm to do.
At a certain point, the match between Brazil and North Korea began, such that we spent the next 90 minutes gaping at the television as the rare spectacle of the tightly coordinated North Korean defense pitted against the Brazilian powerhouse offense unfolded before our eyes. We naturally rooted for North Korea – Simon: “Ich stehe immer auf der Seite der Außenseiter.” – and were sad for their 2-1 loss. Nevertheless, we found it so poetic that they posed such a strong resistance for the first 65 minutes of the game that we forgot the renewed geopolitical dispute over the 38th Parallel N the country’s leaders have offered us in recent months. Then again, we are all captivated by immaculately kept soccer fields amidst a South Africa stricken by the horrific economic and social consequences of neoliberal capitalism. So it goes.
Lady Snowblood (dir. Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
The classic “child of vengeance story”: a woman’s family is killed by four evil people, so she murders one and bears a child for the express purpose of having the remaining three killed. Kill Bill (2004) extensively references this film, but let’s not dwell on that. Instead, our attention should be focused on the intense shock edits demonstrating the revenge-obsessed psychology of the protagonist (cf Lone Wolf and Cub), the simple-yet-effective fight choreography (cf Seven Samurai) and the different philosophical paradigms embodied by the antagonists (cf El Topo). A masterwork of generic excess.
Les Vampires (dir. Louis Feuillade, 1915)
I remember watching this French serial back at the University of Iowa in the summer of 2001 and wanted to see if it was as good as my memory of it. It is. Though the pacing of individual scenes runs against modern viewer expectation (i.e., we spend a long time watching actors walking all the way into buildings, across roofs, etc.), the mise-en-scène is still quite stunning, with multiple fields of action and a coherent delineation between them all.
March 6, 2010
This week has been structured by two parallel visits with DEFA personalities involved in the creation of the studio’s genre films, namely: star Gojko Mitic (pictured at right) and cinematographer Otto Hanisch.
On Tuesday March 2, I attended Mitic’s reading/q&a at the Urania cinema near Nollendorfplatz. The event was in part blatant advertising for the recent DEFA-Stiftung fan book Gesichter der DEFA, and in part a kind of nostalgic service (in the religious sense) for the fans. I was easily the youngest person in the theater, for example, whereas most of the people present were likely from the target demographic of Mitic’s Indianerfilme in the 1960s and 70s: GDR children aged 6-16.
The Serbian star narrated his life for the audience, repeating interview material from the newspapers with almost knife-like precision. The man is a true professional. Nevertheless, the legend proved moving: the moderator confessed that he always wanted to become an Indian while he was growing up (whereas Mitic always wanted to be a sea captain) and Mitic claimed that he always stayed in the GDR out of the tremendous love his fans expressed for him. He continuously returned to the kind of “spiritual socialism” (socialist spiritualism?) expressed in his films, namely utopian thoughts of correcting injustice around the world through culture and combating the greed of capitalism by re-writing history. But the audience was truly moved. Mitic’s speeches were greeted by spontaneous applause, approving laughter and enthusiastic questions. After the lecture was over, the 70-year old actor was mobbed by 40 and 50 year-olds for autographs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Mitic was perhaps the GDR’s only real star after all.
On Thursday, screenwriter Stefan Kolditz (Atkins, Burning Life) was so generous as to bring me to the Berlin apt. of Otto Hanisch, his father’s top cameraman. I had done my homework for the interview, so I knew that Hanisch was a WWII veteran who had survived a sinking submarine and had spent three years in Soviet gulags, before becoming a painter and a cinematographer under the GDR’s genre film directors. I knew he had apprenticed under UFA legends Bruno Mondi (Jud Süß, Das kalte Herz) and Robert Baberske (M, Der Untertan), and had to improvise a great deal to get the DEFA-Indianerfilm to “work” filmically in comparison with international westerns in the 60s. Frankly, I had no idea what he would be like.
It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon. Hanisch and his wife warmly greeted us and invited us to coffee and cake. “What do you want to talk about?” Hanisch asked me. I explained my interest in DEFA genre films and broke out the digital recorder. “Put that away,” he said. “And I’ll show you all my production materials for Spur des Falken and Signale.” Well, I couldn’t pass that deal up, so for the next 3 hours we pored over photos of stuntmen falling off horses and talked about his difficulties in getting the DEFA Indianerfilm genre off the ground, etc. Hanisch openly bore great respect for Gottfried Kolditz (okay, his son was present, but still…), always referring to him as “The Doctor,” and they clearly saw themselves as “Fachmänner” of a sort — expertly trained filmmakers who overcame grave difficulties to create some of the most popular genre entertainment in the GDR, despite little recognition for their work from the government. He complained of the “thin” scripts he received from Dr. Günter Karl, that they then had to convert into compelling stories on a limited budget. He detailed production difficulties in Georgia and Mongolia, but reminded us constantly that his encounters with film professionals from those countries were always cordial. “We all spoke the same language: film.” he remarked. Only interactions with politics and political ramifications in the Cold War seemed in hindsight to be challenges he could’ve done without. “But then at least we got to make films,” he said. “Not like today where it’s very difficult to get work outside of specific networks.” His point is well-taken, especially with what my colleagues at the HFF have said to this effect.
Both Mitic and Hanisch were seen as true experts at what they did, existing in some sphere outside of politics where all that matters is stunts performed and stunts recorded. Is the “stunt” necessarily an apolitical act? I’ll have to muse on this.
Chingachgook, the Great Snake (dir. Richard Groschopp, 1967)
The Last of the Mohicans, except with a happy socialist ending.
President (dir. C.T. Dreyer, 1919)
A masterpiece of silent storytelling by Dreyer, following many of his usual motifs, namely persecution, guilt, and religion. A local judge seeks to do penitence for not marrying his childhood love because he promised his father he would not wed out of the nobility. Even though the improvised piano soundtrack was lacking this time around, there is little damage it could do to a gorgeous print of a compelling film.
The Scout (dir. Konrad Petzold, 1983)
Ever wanted to see a movie about Native American cowboys? Gojko Mitic plays one here: a Nez Perce sent to lead the white men and their horses astray. Shot in Mongolia, this was the film that nearly killed Gojko in a stampede and only made after its original director Gottfried Kolditz died while location scouting in Yugoslavia. No wonder this was the last DEFA Indianerfilm.
Come Drink with Me (dir. King Hu, 1966)
One of the early, pre-Bruce Lee kung fu films that left their mark on action-film posterity. A general’s daughter is sent disguised as a man to rescue her brother from evil bandits, only to be helped by a beggar-kung-fu-master along the way. The constellation of characters and narrative are simple, but effective.
February 28, 2010
Writers have blogs, but dissertation writers probably shouldn’t. I realize this after I woke up this morning and realized there’d been a week since the end of the Berlinale and I hadn’t so much as hinted at my experiences there. Too much other writing going on.
Since I probably have too much to describe anyhow, I will use the woefully insufficient writing device of bullet points to summarize.
During Days 3-10 of the Berlinale 2010, I…
* …attended three retrospective panels with film artists in attendance.
* …discovered an excellent bistro: Marcann’s.
* …helped the HFF and sehsüchte host the Filmhochschule Party at HBC.
* …began planning a DEFA conference.
* …found myself watching more Japanese films than German or American.
* …saw Katrin Saß, Sylvain Chomet and Hanna Schygulla in the flesh.
* …met Gojko Mitic, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Günter Reisch, F.B. Habel, Stefan Haupt, Anton Kaes, Rainer Rother, Ralf Schenk, Günter Agde, Wolfgang Mühl-Benninghaus, Wolfgang Klaue, Karl Griep and Bernd Plattner. I leave this to be examined by DEFA scholars.
* …regularly got up at 6 a.m. to get my accreditation tickets at Potsdamer Platz.
* …was threatened with physical violence by an angry old woman who thought I had unfairly cut in front of her in the ticket line.
* …wrote eight pages of solid film theory for my dissertation (dork moment).
What films did I watch and what did I think of them? Scroll down to Fantasy.
Here’s some photographic evidence of my meeting DEFA director Günter Reisch:
The Illusionist (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Utterly brilliant. Read my thoughts here.
Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillét, 1968)
A history of Bach that preserves its own historicity. I must have seen this one about six or seven times. Yet I still have trouble ordering all the images in my head, but they look fantastic in 35mm.
The Law of Desire (dir. Pedro Almodòvar, 1987)
A tightly controlled meditation on the sensual possibilities of film and film-writing through melodrama. Anticipates Almodòvar’s entire career.
Red Sorghum (dir. Zhang Yimou, 1988)
A Chinese nationalist epic that starts off on the right foot and somehow ends on the far right foot…
Summer Wars (dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2009)
This is the must-see anime of the year: a look at cyberwarfare through the story of a shogun family in modern times. Reminds one of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), with perhaps a far less open ending.
Kyoto Story (dir. Yoji Yamada, 2010)
A declaration of love to Kyoto Uzumasa, site of the former film studios. A fictional love triangle is masterfully interwoven into the daily lives of real shopkeepers on a real street.
December 6, 2009
I figured a blog after a month was sufficient suspense for the world. Summarized below are some of my experiences, assembled from the hazy recesses of my memory.
November 9, 2009: The 20th anniversary of socialism’s unexpected collapse saw Kat and I standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the rainy cold from about 5:30 p.m. until about 9:30 p.m., during which time most of what we could see was umbrellas. Much of the crowd consisted of slightly drunk tourists. The orchestra played a handful of depressing modernist tunes and then the Berliner Luft song, which some people really liked. Then all the world leaders got up and gave trite speeches that amounted to more-or-less the same thing. Lech Walesa got up and struck down part of the “domino wall” they built, but got injured a split second later. By that point, Kat was wet and freezing, so we tried to go home – to no avail! They had blocked off our subway exit, and they had barricades on every street. Freedom without walls, my behind! So we carefully wound our way to Friedrichstrasse to take the S-Bahn home. The next day, I asked the Berliners at my school what their evening was like: they stayed at home and watched the events on television.
Far less mediocre was the retreat for the HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg retreat to Eberswalde. The purpose of the retreat was ostensibly to party hard and plan sehsüchte, our student film festival in Potsdam-Babelsberg and the largest of its kind in Europe. Needless to say, I think we did more of the former than the latter, which gave me a serious headache complex on Saturday. Despite the aching pains from between my ears, I managed to see the absolutely stunning Brandenburg countryside, which reminded of me of Adventures of Werner Holt or I Was 19 (always DEFA films with me).
The following Friday, our sehsüchte team met at the Kino Arsenal for four hours with, oh, none other than the top figures of the Berlinale. This seems like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity for me, so I feel like a thorough description is in order. We first spoke with Dieter Kosslick, director of the entire festival, about financing the Berlinale via the KVB (Kulturveranstaltung des Bundes Berlin) and how one must maintain financial control to survive as an institution. He then described the Berlinale under Moritz de Hadeln (1980-2001) as organized like a “Stalinist hierarchy” (ouch!) and bid that we spread responsibility for our festival evenly amongst ourselves. Some fun facts about the Berlinale I learned: from about 5,700 films submitted, only 350 are accepted for the festival (and the submission fee is non-refundable, naturally); no films between 30 and 60 minutes in length are eligible; there are over 800 official festival guests, but 21,000 accreditations given out … including those for over 4,000 journalists; the Berlinale will be converting to a full HD festival, meaning everything will be projected within 3-4 years as JPEG2000. Then we spoke with Thomas Hailer (Program Manager), Karin Hoffinger (Program/International Relations), André Stever (Film Materials), Maryanne Redpath (Generation – kids program), Christina Szápáry (Event Management), Susanne Willadt (Accreditation) and Frauke Greiner (Press), all one after the other and regarding what their job looks like, etc. The chief concern that they seem to have in dealing with the Hollywood majors – but also independents – these days is with piracy, namely that the festival screening copy doesn’t fall onto the Internet somehow. These days, they have orange, satellite-controlled hard-drives that control when movies can be projected from the data held within. Crazy stuff.
From the Berlinale meeting, I ran over to Kino Babylon on Rosa Luxembourg Platz to attend the DEFA-Stiftung Award Ceremony as the representative of the DEFA Film Library. There, I saw everybody from the Who’s Who of GDR cinema there – Erika Richter, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Andreas Voigt, Ralf Schenk – the list just keeps going. The awards ceremony itself was rather dry – though the great German-language film journal Revolver deservedly won an award – but included a never-before-seen hilarious short about robbers breaking into a symphony orchestra house using the timing of the music being played in the hall itself. Afterward, I got a chance to have a long conversation with Stefan Kolditz about his father Gottfried, and other topics, and then hit an excellent Vietnamese restaurant down the street with Kat.
On Saturday morning (11/21), we had brunch in Prenzlauer Berg with screenplay author Katharina Reschke and her partner Oliver Schuette, both of whom taught at Grinnell College for a stint. The weather was so nice that the whole population of Prenzlauer Berg seemed to be outside to enjoy the sun. Then we followed the brunch with preparations for a dinner with Luisa Greenfield and Ming Tsao, which was both tasty and highly polemic.
The following Tuesday was the release party of HFF teaching assistant Tobias Ebbrecht’s book DDR erinnern – vergessen. Okay, so it wasn’t so much a party as it was a roundtable discussion between Tobias, Ralf Forster, Peter Badel and Helke Misselwitz about making documentaries in the GDR. I think the takeaway points were that they missed the kind of cohesive teamwork one found in film production under socialism, and that whatever anyone says about their work, they made films and those films are well-archived for future generations.
That Wednesday night, Moderat (Modeselektor + Apparat + Pfadfinderei) were throwing their last concert ever in the Astra Kulturhaus in Berlin … and I had to go! I managed to get my ticket at a discount thanks to some generous scalpers, and then joined the 2,000+ throng of excited Berliners willing to sweat their way through the evening. What a concert too – they played three encores, even though they’d run out of material!
On Saturday, the Medienwissenschaft students and I were charged with the interesting task of standing by the 3D cinema in the Zoo Palast and ask the incoming patrons why they chose to pay more for the 3D version of A Christmas Carol than simply see the 2D version. Confronting random Germans with a questionnaire as a foreigner was certainly awkward, but somehow enjoyable.
For Thanksgiving, Kat and I actually decided to take the night off from cooking (which we do with great frequency) and went to the Ypsilon, a Greek restaurant around the corner. We had fried cheese and mussels to our heart’s content, and it was a lovely time overall. On Black Friday, we headed to Ming and Luisa’s for a film night – Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo (1980) and Jean-Luc Godard’s France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977) – about children. It seemed appropriate to depart said film screening and head to the 80s Night/Terror wave Party held near Jannowitz Brücke. Awesome music (Soft Cell, New Order and all those folks) swept us away, though we were rather impressed by the fact that Germans tend to dance as if they were in their own isolated bubble/little world… as opposed to the American “bump n’ grind” style that plagues us all.
To counteract the Goth and Terror of the previous evening, we attended the Thanksgiving at the American Church in Berlin. Even if given the opportunity to do it again, I wouldn’t. The event was logistically poorly organized (over 1.5 hours waited to get our food… and they ran out of many things), expensive and not at all filled with English-speakers, as it turned out. The weekend was much improved by a visit to the Jewish Museum the following day: the exhibits were extensively researched and completely fascinating in every way. One might say that the architecture of the building itself speaks volumes.
I saw Volker Koepp, another DEFA documentarist, at a Humboldt University talk. Students tried to tell him his films were obscure and needed to be better advertised, to which he responded that he was both a prolific and internationally recognized filmmaker. It made all the work on his and others’ behalf at the DEFA Film Library seem worth it right there and then.
One side effect of the awful Thanksgiving was that it alerted us to a FREE opportunity to see the inside of the Berliner Dom: an English/German Christmas service, complete with singing. The Berliner Dom is certainly a monument to Protestantism if I’d ever seen one, with statues of Protestant resisters such as Luther looking patriarchally down upon the parishioners.
My first visit to the Filmmuseum Potsdam Sammlungen department yielded a wealth of information on Gottfried Kolditz – so much that I had to make another trip there the following week. Creepily enough, I think I read his last diary entry before he died, and he died a few months before I was born. Hm?
The Berliner Staatsoper became an agenda item, so we found ourselves watching a thoroughly modern performance of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus from the 4th row after paying very little. I was glad for this fact, because I felt like the modern staging screwed with the fantasy elements inherent in the masquerade ball, though I liked (as always) the jail guard Frosch in the third Act, especially as a former GDR flunkie.
That Friday night saw Kat and I attending the weekly shindig held at the Another Country bookstore in Kreuzberg, an English-language bookstore known by every English-speaking expatriate in the city. We spent an embarrassingly long time glued to the projector screen, watching the second season of The Restaurant, a “coaching” genre reality show from the UK where Raymond Blanc and other judges evaluate pairs of amateur restauranteurs making a go of it. Beautifully shot and definitely intended for foodies, there were enough characters to sustain long-term interest.
And this week it rained a lot, we held a baking party on Thursday, and Kat and I ordered our tickets to go to Prague for Christmas.
Summary finished, folks. Was it digestible? Can I be “digested?” Yum!
Let me preface this by saying I’ve seen far more movies than this over the past month, but too many titles are swirling around in my head to thoroughly document it in this forum. THIS is a small selection of some notables:
Dreams that Money Can Buy (dir. Hans Richter, USA 1948)
Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Ferdinand Léger, Hans Richter … the great modernists of the early 20th Century went ahead and made a film. A work of surrealism that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, Dreams that Money Can Buy is about a guy who can sell people dreams out of this dark apartment. Hilarity and trippy sequences ensue.
Red Cliff (dir. John Woo, China 2009)
The best film of the year, hands-down. A condensed 138 minute version of the four-hour epic based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms literature, Red Cliff is (despite any cuts) John Woo’s finest cinematic achievement. Ask me more and I’ll tell you.
October 22, 2009
(Kat is coming Sunday afternoon! The excitement had to be noted.)
Saturday proved an intensely social time for the solitary little me. My first engagement was helping my friend Jan F. (from my Grinnell years) paint his old apartment in Friedrichshain. Most people might’ve said “Spend an afternoon in Berlin painting? No way!” I see it differently: activities that make me feel like a real person within a larger community are always welcome to me, and what better activity than applying white paint to not-so-white-anymore walls accomplishes this? Our chief concern was actually the fact that I hadn’t brought any “old clothes” to Germany (would you – seriously – bring along your painting clothes as part of your luggage?), so we rigged together an outfit out of a garbage bag for the day, which worked rather well in the end.
After whitifying ~1.5 rooms in Jan’s apartment, my arm grew tired and I departed for the Yellow Sunshine Diner, an excellent and affordable Berlin eating experience for the vegetarian and vegan-inclined among us, to meet Beverly and Kira. Our food was delicious – I had the Lappland Burger – and then we migrated to Café Bilderbuch in Schöneberg for drinks and dessert. A fine day overall!
Monday marked our second day of shooting for the HFF Konrad Wolf film. Again we experienced no problems (our final cut of the film is already turned in, in fact), and were even able to eat/imbibe some of the props… I will conduct a thorough analysis of our own film after its initial release on Friday, given that its premature summary jeopardizes its humor value.
(In between reality and fantasy, there’s interpretation. Here are a couple of academic books I’ve read in full and can discuss in brief):
Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race
This was a highly engrossing book, complicated in its argumentation but simple enough in premise: the world’s problem isn’t racism, but race as a construct, and it is specifically a product of whiteness, a Lacanian master signifier that organizes the paradoxical forces of identity (heritage: where you come from) and visibility (what do you look like, and what’s non-white about it). Using the Lacanian logic of gender difference to explore the interaction of whiteness as master signifier with non-whiteness as a closed-system of pre-determined (and stereotyped) meanings, Seshadri manages to philosophically clarify what the heck do we mean by race and how we signify it. Then she heads into her discipline – English literature – for a plethora of philosophical examples to illustrate her points. A great work of scholarship, if a bit biased toward issues primarily concerning English departments nowadays.
Mark Cronlund Anderson, Cowboy Imperialism and Hollywood Film
Anderson’s book is what I would consider a historian’s academically fueled rant against the right-wing politics of frontier westerns and their pernicious legacy across other genres. Replete with swear words and hard-line diatribes, his argument basically contends that Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History has provided an academic justification for the American imperialism of the 20th and 21st Centuries, best sugar-coated through the cinema presence of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and others. Some of his film selections proved rather interesting: he prompted me to watch Howard Hawks’ classic Red River (1948) in full and consider Mario van Peebles’ Posse (1993) an extension of the frontier myth through the semblance of re-writing the race rules of the western genre – all useful for the dissertation. I just wouldn’t recommend the work for those who want an academically disciplined, post-colonial genre discourse analysis across a broad range of national cinemas.
The Power of Nightmares (dir. Adam Curtis, UK 2004)
I remember watching Century of the Self a year ago and thinking it was a fairly decent intellectual history of public relations and the Freudian basis of modern advertising (not to mention commercial narrative, in general). The Power of Nightmares is kind of like that documentary mixed together with Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), the recap of what Vietnam was really about. Three hours of comparing neo-conservatives (as if they were different from neo-liberals, but I digress) to the radical Islamists in the Middle East actually proves quite interesting, since Curtis managed to snag crucial interviews from both sides, delivering a very even-handed and sober account of the web of fear and lies concocted by either party to support their political agendas. Maybe in ten years we’ll get a documentary about all the domestic damage the neo-cons have wrought too.
The Piano (dir. Jane Campion, UK/New Zealand 1993)
A heavy work of post-colonial, Freudian melodrama, complete with primal scenes, sado-masochism, and conflicts over the power over sexuality and the means of self-expression. I thought Anna Paquin’s character really held this film together, though all the actors – including Harvey Keitel in his standard “I’m naked!” scene – contributed to the high quality of this film. And Michael Nyman’s soundtrack is still one of the best modern piano scores out there. ‘Twas overall better than Forrest Gump (1994), but was probably too haunting (and too “directed by a woman”) to win the Oscar that year.
Lovers on the Road (dir. Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan, China 2008)
There’s an Asian Women’s Film Festival happening at the Kino Arsenal, so I figured I should go take a look at the offerings. It turned out the filmmaker was present for the screening, which was a short feature about a relationship on the rocks after the couple moves from Hong Kong to Beijing for the boyfriend’s graphic design career. Our female protagonist leads us through the ambivalence of passionless life transitions, which ultimately leads her to have an affair with an itinerant Japanese barista and then decide perhaps to do something else with her life (we don’t know for sure). One particularly great portion of the film involves audio interviews conducted with various (one presumes) real people who have recently come to Beijing for assorted purposes. This documentary realism provides a welcome diversion to an otherwise introverted and claustrophobic (one might say “angsty”) portrayal of relations between two fictional characters. Ah, alienation.
Apaches (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR/Romania/Poland 1973)
This was/is, bar none, the most popular GDR Indianerfilm, and there are many good reasons for this. Reason #1: Gojko Mitic actually co-wrote this one, which means there are lots of scenes of him doing neat things and kicking ass. Reason #2: All the moralizing of the earlier Indianerfilme was stripped away for a basic good vs. evil scenario: evil capitalists mass-murder the Apaches because they could, and then the Apaches exact bloody revenge. Sergio Leone would’ve been proud. Reason #3: The cool thing Gojko does is firing a flaming arrow at a covered wagon, which then explodes. If I were 10 years-old and watching this thing (sort of like the logic that drove the recent G.I. Joe movie, in fact), I would’ve been mesmerized.
October 5, 2009
I have titled this blog entry based not only on Keanu Reeves’ favorite expression, but also on my sudden feeling of being stunned in the middle of the action.
A re-cap of my weekend: I celebrated my 27th birthday on Friday, first by going over to Luisa and Ming’s place in Kreuzberg for a nice lunch where we discussed a future mini-film festival that we’ll hold in their apartment. It was extremely wonderful to be engaged in an intense discussion about film, politics and what have you with several earnest professionals who know what they’re talking about. I then made myself a cake and then went to Hilary Bown’s apartment with Kira to play classic Monopoly. Now I categorically hate Monopoly – we might as well record 30 of our dice rolls on a chart and see who wins – but coupling it with late-night drinking made it alright. On Saturday and Sunday, I got out to La Foccaceria in Mitte – a great, cheap pizza place – and to the Brandenburg Gate to watch the “Riesen” (“Giants”) get dressed by about 20 puppeteers for their march through Berlin. (Since there were way too many people there for the puppets, I left after they crossed through the Brandenburg Gate… which was itself a spectacle, since I didn’t know if the guy in the diving suit would make it).
Now for the “whoa” part: our orientation program at the HFF Potsdam today. Ever since I arrived in Berlin, I’ve been given a handful of unstructured weeks in which to A) get settled in my apartment, B) waste time at the LABO trying to get a visa, C) write some fiction and D) structure my dissertation research. As of today, that unstructured time is officially gone. For the next three weeks, I belong to the HFF, which means I’m now “sneaking in” my research at night. Our orientation program began with a stunning “country boy” rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” performed by one of the students, followed by a pep talk from Stefan Arndt (Run Lola Run, Goodbye Lenin!) in which he basically said “I never went to film school – I just made films. Use this film school opportunity to watch and make films!” Then we were all introduced in our different fields – film direction, production, film and media studies (my area), cinematography, acting, music composition, etc. – and handed these nifty tote bags. After we met with our respective faculties, we then returned to the auditorium to be divided up into 10 groups – irrespective of our respective fields – that in 3 weeks time will each complete a “introductory film.” I’m only slightly nervous about the fact that our group primarily contains people from film direction, production, screenwriting and film studies, and nobody from cinematography, editing, sound, or film music. This may influence what film we wind up producing. We were given a tour today of the facilities and of all the state-of-the-art film technology that the HFF now has to offer, so only tomorrow do we have to think about the film we’re going to make. But still: it was quite funny to suddenly show up and be asked to make a film in three weeks with a group of complete strangers.
Nevertheless – and I think this is the larger point – these people soon grew (over the course of one day!) to be more than just strangers. I think there’s just under 100 people in our entering class in total, which means our departments aren’t that big and everybody is very collegial with one another. Add to that the fact that I’m like an exotic animal, being an American who speaks very good German and has a hyper-acute knowledge of East/West German film history, and Bam! I found myself in conversations with people the entire day. I shared some music with one student, bantered with the media studies professors about recent films, and gave a group of my peers a crash course on the historical significance of Konrad Wolf’s I Was 19. That is to say, I am suddenly academically at home as well. BUT being academically at home is exhausting to say the least, so I’d better hit the sack for the next day of intensive introduction to the top film school in Germany…
Never Drive A Car While You’re Dead (dir. Gregor Dashuber, Germany 2009)
Possibly the greatest animated short I’ve seen in a long time, Never Drive a Car While You’re Dead should be up for an Academy Award – except those only exist to praise Pixar these days. The premise? A guy in a crappy apartment – vaguely resembling Cahit’s from Gegen die Wand (2004) – tries to commit suicide, but feels compelled instead to play his piano. This piano quite literally drives him into the nightmarish hellhole neighborhood he lives in, which has been shaped by neo-liberal capitalism and Baudrillard’s “apocalypse of the Real,” resplendent with violent penguins, Siamese twin prostitutes, and assorted suffering people. A group of like-minded people follow him to his own grave, at which point he wakes up, tries to commit suicide and (I’m giving away the twist) poetically fails. This film had an understated, well-executed soundtrack, an animation style drawing from both classic Thames cartoons (e.g. Count Duckula) as well as MTV, and a fiercely sarcastic message that it manages to maintain throughout the piece. I think it’s amazing that they showed us such a bleak product as an introduction to the HFF, but it’s bold, aggressive and has a clear message. Bravo!
The Falcon’s Trail (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR 1968)
Well, it turns out I watched White Wolves too early, as it’s the sequel to this film. White men find gold in the Black Hills, and so the evil capitalists maneuver to try and take the land away from the Dakotas. Kolditz’s first foray into Indianerfilm territory only sort of succeeds: he doesn’t include as many stunts with Gojko Mitic as Konrad Petzold but, man, does he go out of his way to depict an outright massacre of the Dakotas by the white men! This is a recurring trope throughout the DEFA Indianerfilme that we always find ourselves somehow vicariously experiencing some massacre of one tribe or another. This reminds me of Quinn Slobodian’s article on “corpse polemics” and the fascination among the West German tabloids for the grotesquely murdered and mutilated African bodies.
Cool Thing Gojko Does: Mount and ride a bareback horse.
The other major detail is also the crazy war dances performed which harken back to Kolditz’s musical training and serve as a precursor to the crazy alien dances in In the Dust of the Stars (1976).
Fatal Error (dir. Konrad Petzold, GDR 1970)
Okay, instead of gold, this time the white men find oil on the Shoshone’s land and conspire to take it away. The Shoshone are bribed with, of all things, alcohol to make them weak (the same trope is used in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Bouncer Vol. 6 The Black Widow) so they can simply be cheated and murdered.
Cool Thing Gojko Does: Actually, this is more Armin Mueller-Stahl’s movie (good thing his cowboy grew up with the Shoshone), but Gojko does take on drunk Shoshones armed with flaming torches who want to set fire to the oil tower on their property.
I Was 19 (dir. Konrad Wolf, GDR 1968)
Of all things, the HFF Konrad Wolf spends the first day – ta da! – showing us a film by Konrad Wolf. This was good, because I’ve seen the film plenty of times earlier and was able to see it through new eyes on a 35mm print of middling quality. I was most impressed this time with the way in which Konrad Wolf’s autobiography and his unified film vision sometimes come into conflict. He toys with details that he remembers from his past, but such details intrude on otherwise more seamless cuts and more transparent characters. Still, there are few better films to use to discuss the Russian invasion of Germany ca. late April 1945.