Tuesday, April 16, 2019

FLEFF 2019



I have recently returned from Ithaca, New York, where I spent a few rewarding days at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF). FLEFF is run by Patricia Zimmermann and Tom Shevory, both faculty at Ithaca College, the major sponsor of the festival.

FLEFF is unlike other film festivals I've attended because it consciously gathers an unusual diversity of people in a single space: cinephiles, film/media makers, critics, scholars, curators, journalists, and students. Further, the conference is designed as much around opportunities for discussion and discourse as it is around watching films. For instance, I spent an entire day in a series of seminar-style, round-table sessions called FLEFF Lab, with about 20 participants from a variety of backgrounds. The discussions revolved around this year's festival theme of "Disruptions"--defined broadly and imaginatively here, and roaming far beyond the term's conventional, pro-capitalist use in the area of tech-enabled innovation.

FLEFF self-identifies as an "environmental" film festival, but its use of the word is expansive. Since the forces that are causing our ecological crisis are fundamentally capitalist, and since those forces ravage both the natural environment and all non-human and human life on the planet, the purview of the festival turns out to be all-encompassing. The scope of work is correspondingly broad: not only films, but also concerts, installations, theatrical events, and new media works are featured on the program.

FLEFF was founded in 1997 at Cornell University, and then moved to Ithaca College under the leadership of Zimmermann and Shevory 15 years ago. Patty and Tom both wear multiple hats: they are scholars, teachers, film/media lovers and programmers. Patty, one of the most prolific and well-reputed scholars in film/media studies, also runs a blog (well worth digging into) called Flaherty Stories, which gathers a wide range of personal accounts of experiences at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminars. (She is the author, with Scott Macdonald, of the 2017 book The Flaherty: Sixty Years in the Cause of Independent Film.) Tom, who has written several books on issues related to law and public policy, is also an avid cyclist whose last book The Great Lakes at Ten Miles an Hour, is an "account of his travels and explorations of the geological, environmental, historical, and cultural riches harbored by these great inland seas." Together, they are the soul of the festival: in seminar rooms, theaters, or at Red's, the local bar where festival attendees ritually converge for parties each night.

One of the highlights of this year's festival was a pair of silent films with live musical accompaniment. First, a 1923 version of Oscar Wilde's Salome, starring the now mostly forgotten Russian-born star Alla Nazimova, who at one time commanded a bigger Hollywood salary than Mary Pickford. Openly bisexual, Nazimova (according to Ryan Smillie) hired the costume designer, art director and production designer Natacha Rambova (purported to be her lover) to create the look of this film, which is a striking blend of bold, graphic minimalism and Art Nouveau. Smillie calls it "America's first art film."

One of only seven surviving Argentine silent films, El Ultimo Malon (1917; sometimes translated as The Last Indian Attack) dramatizes the last Indigenous rebellion in Argentina, by the Mocovi. The cast, composed almost entirely of non-professional actors, reputedly numbered many who were part of the original 1904 uprising. The director, Alcides Greca, even appears briefly as himself in the film, which is a work of fiction with intriguing elements of ethnographic documentary. Something I'd never seen before: Both silent performances were preceded by special, one-time theatrical performances (co-written by Patty Zimmermann) that creatively surrounded what we were about to see with a rich production and socio-cultural context.

The other high point of the festival for me was a screening of short works by the experimental filmmaker Kelly Gallagher titled "Feminist Animations." Gallagher described herself as being motivated by the twin forces of love and rage. This self-characterization was spot-on; the films in the program were divided between the deeply personal and the viscerally political. Her aesthetic, which makes playful and powerful use of cut-out animation collage, is accessible and affecting. Gallagher is a former union organizer, and her commitment to collectivist radical politics comes blazing through both in her films and beyond them: for example, she has made all her work available to watch for free at Vimeo. Let me recommend three short films as a starter: "More Dangerous than a Thousand Rioters," an experimental documentary on the life of revolutionary Lucy Parsons; "From Ally to Accomplice," which is about figures such as John Brown and Marilyn Buck, who went beyond being simply "allies" to placing themselves at significant risk for their passionately-held beliefs; and "The Herstory of the Female Filmmaker". This interview with her is a wonderful read.

I regret that, as a cinephile, film festival habitué, and three-decade resident of New York state, it's taken me this long to discover FLEFF and make my first film trip to Ithaca.


Saturday, March 02, 2019

Manifesto for a New Cinephilia



I've written a manifesto titled "For a New Cinephilia" for the new issue of Film Quarterly. It's part of a special section of manifestos assembled and edited by B. Ruby Rich. All eleven manifestos can be downloaded on PDF.

Here is an excerpt:

The pleasures at the heart of the old cinephilia are predominantly aesthetic. The new cinephilia has a broader definition of pleasure: it values the aesthetic experience of cinema, but it demands more. It finds pleasure, additionally, in a deep curiosity about the world and a critical engagement with it. Cinema teaches us about the human and nonhuman world in new and powerful ways. Traditional cinephilic pleasure is private, personal, inward; it is also what Laura Mulvey, in her landmark manifesto, wished to destroy. The new cinephilia radiates outward, powered by a spirit of inquiry and a will to social and planetary change. It is no coincidence that so many filmmakers valued by the new cinephilia—women, queer, Indigenous, people of color—have an interest in activism, and view cinema itself as part of a larger cultural-activist project. It is equally no coincidence that relatively few straight, white male filmmakers share this trait [...]

You shall know the old cinephilia by the sounds of its worrying: film culture these days is “too PC,” too “morality-driven,” and “all about identity politics.” Supposedly fragmented and atomized along identity lines, it is no longer unified the way it once was. For the new cinephilia, however, this unity of film culture is a figment of nostalgic fantasy: a fiction propagated and sustained by the imposition of a false universalism. By privileging certain identities (white, male, heterosexual) over others, Euro-Western film culture has historically constructed an illusion of wholeness and coherence. What is truly being mourned by the old cinephilia is the (tiny) loss of cultural authority and influence for its dominant identity groups [...]

“Life organized around films”: this is one widely accepted definition of traditional cinephilia. But at this moment, when the world is in turmoil and the planet on the edge of catastrophe, such a conception of cine-love seems narcissistic. What we need now is a cinephilia that is fully in contact with its present, global moment—that accompanies it, that moves and travels with it. No matter how ardent and passionate our love for this medium, the world is bigger and vastly more important than cinema."

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Recent Reads: Alisa Lebow, So Mayer, Leo Goldsmith, etc.



-- This is absolutely invaluable: "The Radical Copyeditor's Style Guide for Writing about Transgender People" by Alex Kapitan.

-- Margaret Tait's Blue Black Permanent (1992) is one of the best films I've seen in recent months (thank you, MUBI). Here is So Mayer's introduction to a London screening of the film.

-- Leo Goldsmith's must-read essay "Theories of the Earth: Surface and Extraction in the Landscape Film" in the loaded new issue of the documentary journal World Records.

-- Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: "An A-Z of Women's Horror Filmmaking".

-- Allison de Fren's video essay "Mad Science/Mad Love and the Female Body in Pieces" -- part of "Videographic Frankenstein: A Special Exhibition of Creative and Scholarly Video," curated by Shane Denson.

-- Alisa Lebow writes about her meta-documentary Filming Revolution (and also includes a link to it): "The choice to create an interactive meta-documentary, rather than to either write a book or make a linear documentary about filming in Egypt since the revolution, was a very conscious one. For a film scholar such as myself, the temptation is to write a book, not only because that is my training, but because that is what is expected of me. Yet to position myself as the author of a book about filmmaking in Egypt since the revolution is to put myself in the position of mastery over my subject, a position I was at the outset and also now unwilling to take. I did not experience the events of the revolution, nor am I an expert in Egyptian film. I do not speak Arabic and rely on translation and subtitles for my access to many of the films discussed. Rather than playing the expert, I preferred the position of interlocutor..."

-- "Toward Creating a Trans Literary Canon" (in the Paris Review).

-- On the 2019 Berlinale: In addition to a competition lineup that was over 40% women, "Berlin also became the first of the big European fests to publish a detailed gender evaluation study breaking down the gender gap between male and female filmmakers across its entire selection. Of the 400 films that screened in Berlin this year, 98, or 37 percent, were made exclusively by female directors; 146 (55.1 percent) exclusively or predominantly by male directors; and nine (3.4 percent) by directorial teams with equal gender ratios."

-- Brett Story's short film "CamperForce," about how Amazon targets retirees without savings (and living in RVs) for seasonal labor in their warehouses, where they perform demanding physical work for low wages. (Being released soon: Brett Story's book Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power Across Neoliberal America.)

-- Nate Jones: "How Beale Street Got Those Eye-Popping Colors".

-- Two useful end-of-year lists: Top 10 Hindi-language films; and Top 15 Indian, non-Hindi films.

-- Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff in New Replublic: "The Stark Political Divide Between Tech CEOs and Their Employees".

-- Teju Cole in the NYT on the camera as a weapon of imperialism: "But in looking at these images — images of war, of starvation, of capsized boats and exhausted caravans — we must go beyond the usual frames of pity and abjection. Every picture of suffering should elicit a question stronger than “Why is this happening?” The question should be “Why have I allowed this to happen?” This is what the scholar Ariella Azoulay calls the “citizenship” of photography, its ability, when practiced thoughtfully, to remind us of our mutual responsibilities."

-- R.O. Kwon in the Paris Review: "On Being a Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted".

-- A recent study ranks India the most dangerous place to be for a woman. (The USA is in the top 10.)

-- Robin James in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the political philosophy of the TV show The Good Place.

-- Janus films will tour of retrospective of Abbas Kiarostami's films (including rare shorts and documentaries) in the USA this summer.

-- Steven Salaita has a new website, and its opening post is a sharp and moving essay about changing careers from college professor to school bus driver.

pic: Blue Black Permanent (Margaret Tait, 1992)

Saturday, January 05, 2019

TIFF 2018: The Afrobubblegum of Wanuri Kahiu's "Rafiki"



The Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu broke into film culture in 2010 with a wonderful science-fiction short titled Pumzi. The 21-minute film, which is available to stream for free at Vimeo, is in English; its title translates from Swahili as "breath".

8 years later, she has returned with her first feature film, Rafiki (which means "friend"), a story of teenage lesbian love. While the narrative beats of the movie are admittedly familiar, it looks and sounds stunning. What a gloriously celebratory mise-en-scène we find here. Bright colors and rich textures explode in the visual field: costumes and fabrics, jewelry and makeup, props and decor. What's more, there is a visionary purpose behind these choices. Kahiu calls the aesthetic "Afrobubblegum":

When I present my work somewhere, someone will always ask, "What's so important about it? How does it deal with real African issues like war, poverty, devastation or AIDS?" And it doesn't.

My work is about Nairobi pop bands that want to go to space or about seven-foot-tall robots that fall in love. It's nothing incredibly important. It's just fun, fierce and frivolous, as frivolous as bubble gum -- "AfroBubbleGum."

[Overtly political art about problem issues is] vital and important art, but it cannot be the only art that comes out of the continent. We have to tell more stories that are vibrant. [Otherwise we fall victim to] the danger of the single story ...

Fun is political. If we had images of Africans who were vibrant and loving and thriving and living a beautiful, vibrant life. What would we think of ourselves then? Would we think that maybe we're worthy of more happiness?

The story of this film's coming into the world also has a dark side. Rafiki has been banned in Kenya for "promoting lesbianism," since homosexuality is a criminal offense there. Ironically, the film was "unbanned" temporarily for a week by the state to render it eligible for the Oscars. Let us hope that its high visibility--including its status as the first Kenyan film to screen at Cannes--helps pave the way for challenging and overturning these laws.

TIFF 2018: Astra Taylor's "What is Democracy?"



Astra Taylor’s documentary What is Democracy?, which opens on January 16 at the IFC Center in New York City, promises to be among the year's most important films.

When critics speak of “ambitious” movies, they usually have in mind narrative or formal reach. But Taylor’s ambitions here are neither; instead, they are political and activist. She has designed this film to spark conversation and discussion on a broad scale, to make an intervention in culture, to help contribute to the project of social change.

Because the word “democracy” is embraced by an unnervingly wide range of people on the political spectrum—and thus frequently co-opted and abused—Taylor wants to put it under scrutiny, to interrogate and analyze it. She recently confessed in an interview: “words like ‘justice,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘equality,’ ‘socialism,’ and ‘revolution’ spoke to me … but not ‘democracy.’” It is her personal ambivalence about the word—and the uneasy mixture of ideas swirling behind it—that motivate this film.

Living as we are in a “golden age” of documentary, my biggest fear with What is Democracy? is that it will be lumped into the large and baggy category of “issue docs”—and disappear into the VOD void. This would be a terrible mistake. Let me outline three reasons why.

First, most issue docs plunge into a problem subject of the moment, and seek to interest and educate the public about it. The notion of democracy is of burning importance in our world today, but Taylor’s film wants to consciously take a step back and adopt a long view. Rather than being sucked into the rough-and-tumble of the present global moment, Taylor’s aim—while being completely in touch with the pulse of the now—is to move the film into a philosophical register.

What is Democracy? uses a method similar to the one in Taylor’s pedagogically valuable previous film, the documentary Examined Life (2008), which took “philosophy to the streets.” In it she interviewed a number of philosophers, for about ten minutes each, while they were on the move: Cornel West in a taxicab, Peter Singer on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, Judith Butler and Astra’s sister Sunaura Taylor on the sidewalks of San Francisco. This had the effect of removing ideas from the abstract realm, and having them emerge, in concrete and embodied fashion, in public space. Literally, it brought philosophy “down to earth.”

If that film was firmly based in the interview form, What is Democracy? is a little different, positioned somewhere between interview and dialogue. While according ample respect and time to the people she interviews, Taylor herself has a greater presence in this new film. She is an active interlocutor, and her exchanges with her interview subjects add to the dynamism of ideas staged here. Taylor’s Socratic approach does have antecedents in cinema—she is, for instance, greatly inspired by films such as Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1959)—but the broad historical and philosophical curiosity of her approach feels truly original and valuable.

Throughout, the film demonstrates a radical equality. While its interview subjects range from philosophers and theorists to emergency room surgeons, refugees, and (memorably) a barber who is a former convict, these people are all identified only by name, never by title. They are all equal—and equally part of the demos. Rather than placing “experts” on an implicitly authoritative plane, Taylor has said that her intention was simply to “ask questions together.” Some of the most thought-provoking ideas emerge from people with no official or cultural authority, like the aforementioned barber, whose testimony and reflections are unforgettable. For Taylor, it is perverse that “political theory” is a specialized discipline; each one of us has a crucial stake in thinking, in theorizing, about politics—especially all those people who have been historically marginalized. “Excluded people know the most about democracy,” she argues, “They see the structures from below, they see the hierarchies that are still there. They see the hypocrisies.”

A second reason that sets What is Democracy? apart from most issue documentaries is how deeply ambivalent it is about its subject. From the start, rather than focusing on democracy alone, the film chooses instead to trace the twinned histories of democracy and capitalism. We begin in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, with a group of scholars who discuss not only its origins but also its pitfalls, including its risk of co-optation by wealthy demagogues. In another set of sequences threaded through the film, Taylor and feminist/Marxist philosopher Silvia Federici stand in front of a historic fresco in Siena, Italy—Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government,” painted in the 1330s—and analyze the way it depicts the beginnings of financial capitalism.

In some of the film’s most thought-provoking scenes, Taylor and political theorist Wendy Brown discuss the concept of “global democracy.” This emerges as a problematic, contradictory notion for Brown because, even though the idea of global democracy sounds like something to aspire to, it often obscures the fact that democracy needs to be tied to a place and a specific community. Taylor explains:

This idea of a global democracy … sounds good, but it's conceptually incoherent. The challenge of our time is figuring out how we set up boundaries, set up the lines to demarcate a community in a way that's not awful, that's not racist, that's not misogynist, that's not xenophobic or exploitative, because people should have a say over the decisions that affect their lives. Should I be telling a teacher in Italy how to run their school? No, I'm not part of that community. I should be excluded from it. I don't live there. I don't know what they're going through. I don't know the history.

Right now we have very powerful people who aren't part of communities dictating social policy for people they don't know, and they don't care about, and they'll never meet. So we need to grapple with this question of who the "we" is — who is making these decisions, and where …

Taylor’s ambivalence about democracy and the claims made too easily in its name were also the impetus behind her 2014 book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. In the book, she argues that even though the Internet has been hailed as a democratizing force, such a techno-utopian vision obscures the ways in which the Internet (in her words) “reflects and amplifies real-world inequities at least as much as it ameliorates them. Online, just as off-line, attention and influence largely accrue to those who already have plenty of both.” In a way, the film extends this critique of democracy and its rhetoric from the Internet to the world at large.

Third, and finally, the film consciously eschews conventions that issue docs commonly lean upon. Despite the presence of a range of interesting interview subjects, the emphasis is not on individual “stories” here—there is no big and overt appeal to empathy tied to individual predicaments, and (importantly) no final cathartic release leading to a hopeful ending. Taylor explains:

I wanted to make a film where, instead of ending with this big, rousing protest, and epic music, and this idea that we can hold hands and march into a new world, we addressed the spirit of the day after — the day after the big march, the moment after the euphoria, when the challenge is "what do you do?" That energy is dissipated, but the problem is still there.

Astra Taylor, for me, represents a certain kind of boundary-crossing figure in culture who is invaluable but rare. In addition to being a filmmaker, she is a writer and a musician (and member of the acclaimed band Neutral Milk Hotel). She is also an activist who, as part of the Occupy movement, co-edited the broadsheet Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette, whose issues later grew into a book about the movement.

Despite the fact that Taylor spent years working on What is Democracy?, film for her is only one form of cultural work—part of a network of forms held together by an encompassing commitment, that of activism. She does not romanticize the role of art: “A film is not organizing,” she has said, “A film is not activism. A film is a film. Be humble about what its role is.” However, taken as a whole, Taylor’s practice gives us an anti-specialist model that shows us the interconnectedness of artistic, cultural and political activities—and this is a useful example that is all the worthier for being uncommon.


pic: Taylor with Silvia Federici.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

2018: 10 Great Writers



This Happy New Year post is a way of thanking ten writers who gave me much reading pleasure and taught me many new things last year.

In alphabetical order:

ELENA GORFINKEL: Can I just say how great it is to be able to read the work of this brilliant film scholar on a regular basis now in the pages of Sight & Sound magazine?

-- On Valeska Grisebach's Western.
-- On Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970). [pdf]

CATHERINE GRANT: Nothing less than an Internet film-cultural institution.

-- Catherine's prolific Vimeo page, with over a hundred video essays.
-- Four posts at Film Studies for Free from 2018 that contain links to an embarrassment of riches.

AMELIE HASTIE: Pioneering feminist film scholar (for many years part of the Camera Obscura editorial collective) whose invaluable column, "The Vulnerable Spectator," has run in Film Quarterly for the last five years.

-- The archive of the column is available to read online at the journal. [subscribers only]
-- A moving account of her personal relationship to Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (2008).

PAMELA HUTCHINSON: An indefatigable freelance critic, silent film historian, and erudite and elegant writer.

-- Pamela's personal website helpfully contains links to all her online work.
-- Let me specifically point to her online archives at The Guardian, and at the British Film Institute.

SO MAYER: One of film culture's most gloriously centrifugal thinkers and writers.

-- Because so much of their work--poetry, essays, pamphlets--was in print form (see this tweet for details), let me link here to two (of many) online pieces: on "women who wander" in the films of Campion, Varda, and other filmmakers; and an obituary for Armenian fimmaker Maria Saakyan.

B. RUBY RICH: A titan of film culture--whom I've been reading for decades. (Full disclosure: I feel fortunate to be working alongside her at Film Quarterly on the journal's online column, Quorum.)

-- All of Ruby's editorials for Film Quarterly are available to read for free online.

ANNA BACKMAN ROGERS and DANIELLA SHREIR: Two visible and important figures in film culture today, whom I group together because of their invaluable work as editors (of MAI Feminism and Another Gaze, respectively), in addition to their own writings: Rogers' recently released book on Sofia Coppola (Berghahn Books), and Shreir's award-winning translation of Chantal Akerman's My Mother Laughs (Silver Press).

-- MAI Feminism
-- Another Gaze

MOIRA WEIGEL: Freelance writer/editor with an extraordinary range, including but traveling well beyond film.

-- You can read her film criticism: at Criterion and at n+1.
-- "Why Silicon Valley Can't Fix Itself" at the Guardian.
-- Moira also edits the superb technology magazine Logic (with Ben Tarnoff). See her important piece, "The Internet of Women".

ALISON WILLMORE: Few critics working today are as good at surrounding films with rich context (about representation, cultural politics, industry, genre) in their reviews. Here are just two of many excellent pieces at Buzzfeed (where she is film critic):

-- "Orientalism is Alive and Well in American Cinema"
-- "Why I've Had Trouble Buying Hollywood's Version of Girl Power"

*******

If you're curious: last year's year-end post also highlighted (and linked to) the work of several excellent writers.

Happy New Year!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Time's Up for the Male Canon


I have a piece at Film Quarterly, in the online column, Quorum. Here is an excerpt:

What will it take to break the stranglehold of male domination in filmmaking? Despite the ever-increasing outcry, amplified by social media over the last few years, the work of women filmmakers continues to be overlooked, marginalized, erased. Of the many underlying causes, I would like to focus here on one: the enduring hold, on film culture, of auteurism. [...]

[One systemic force that has marginalized women's filmmaking] can be seen playing out in the widely embraced auteurist credo, most famously articulated by François Truffaut, that the worst film by an auteur is more interesting than the best film by a non-auteur. When translated into viewing and writing practices, this principle ended up having two important effects. First, it drastically narrowed the domain of work that merited serious writing and conversation, since the title of “auteur” was awarded stingily to only a few filmmakers—usually, men. Second, it trained the focus of criticism on an auteur’s entire oeuvre, returning to it time and again, tunneling ever deeper to explore the stylistic signature and themes of the films, no matter how “good” (or not) these films were deemed to be. Auteurism thus became an ingenious mechanism for ceaselessly multiplying discourse on a limited number of directors: a manspreading machine.


pic: BFI’s “Woman with a Movie Camera” summit, June 2018, with programmer Anna Bogutskaya. Photo credit: Hannah Leigh Prior.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

TIFF 2018: The Round-Up


Best-of-Fest:

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (Roberto Minervini, USA)
What is Democracy? (Astra Taylor, USA)
Out of Blue (Carol Morley, UK)
High Life (Claire Denis, France)
Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)

Really Enjoyed These Too:

The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack, USA)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, USA)
Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya)
Mouthpiece (Patricia Rozema, Canada)

This Film Can Help Us Start Conversations in Every Home and Classroom:

What is Democracy? (Astra Taylor, USA)

Female Collective Authorship is the Future:

Mouthpiece (Patricia Rozema, Canada). Wrote a few words about it at Cinema Scope.

A Revelatory Moment When I Realized:

That I’m way more interested in hearing about Arab history and cinema from the voices of Arab people than I am from the 30-minute barrage of images and sounds devoted to the subject in Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book.

A Good Movie Marred by the “Woman as Savior” Trope:

Ash is the Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke, China)

Building Entire New Worlds:

Out of Blue (Carol Morley, UK)
High Life (Claire Denis, France)

Dying to Rewatch:

Out of Blue (Carol Morley, UK)
High Life (Claire Denis, France)
Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)

I Read More Un-illuminating, Unsympathetic Reviews of This Movie Than Any Other:

Out of Blue (Carol Morley, UK)

I am a Fan, and Will Follow Wherever She Leads:

Marielle Heller: Will You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) and Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

Heavenly, Eye-Melting Colors, Costumes, and Jewelry:

Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya)

Best Use of Songs:

“I’ll be Seeing You” (Brenda Lee, in Carol Morley’s Out of Blue)
“Under the Milky Way Tonight” (The Church, in Carol Morley’s Out of Blue)
“Road to Nowhere” (Talking Heads, in Christian Petzold’s Transit)

Best Q&A’s:

Astra Taylor, What is Democracy?
Jodie Mack, The Grand Bizarre

Movies I Most Regret Missing:

Reason (Anand Patwardhan, India)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, USA)

pic: What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (Roberto Minervini, USA)

Friday, August 31, 2018

Recent Reads: FSFF Turns 10; Teaching Media Against the Global Right, etc.


-- Here's wishing Catherine Grant's pioneering, iconic blog Film Studies for Free a Happy 10-year Anniversary! Catherine has put up an epic post to mark the occasion.

-- Brian D. Johnson: "Cinema is changing. Can TIFF adapt?" (Via B. Ruby Rich.)

-- A great slide-essay by So Mayer on the intersections between Věra Chytilová's Daisies (1966) and feminist art.

-- Jenn Fang at Teen Vogue: "Yellowface, Whitewashing and the History of White People Playing Asian Characters."

-- An open-access Cinema Journal dossier on "Teaching Media Against the Global Right", edited by Priya Jaikumar and Kay Dickinson.

-- In the Sydney Morning Herald: On the rise of Indigenous filmmaking in Australia.

-- Leo Goldsmith reports from "Cinema Camp, an annual gathering of filmmakers, artists, curators, critics, theorists and cinephiles ... This year, the theme was ‘Imperfect Cinema’."

-- Darren Hughes interviews filmmaker Valerie Massadian, whose new film Milla is among the very best of the year.

-- Laurie Penny on the new Queer Eye: "There is a reason straight women love this show. It’s the pornography of emotional labor."

-- Katy Waldman in The New Yorker on Robin DiAngelo's excellent new book, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

-- In the Los Angeles Times: "14 Film Critics on Making Media More Inclusive."

-- A new discovery for me: the UK critic Sophie Brown's writings on documentary: at her Tinyletter page and at the BFI site.

-- This is a moving and essential read: Daniel Heath Justice's "Letter to an Emerging Indigenous Writer."

-- Let me end by recommending three strong films I saw this month:
1. Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer (2008).
2. Jennifer Phang's Advantageous (2015).
3. Bing Liu's documentary Minding the Gap (2018).

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Recent Reads: Woman with a Movie Camera, etc.


I'm starting a new monthly feature here for recent, particularly interesting reads about cinema, feminism, and politics.

Here we go:

-- A twitter thread by So Mayer on how film criticism needs to change; it is a response to a recent, poorly argued piece that asked, "Who needs film critics?"

-- Pamela Hutchinson reports on the historic "Woman with a Movie Camera" summit at the BFI in London. Also see Anna Coatman's report about the event.

-- Moira Donegan on the divide within feminism between #MeToo and those who form the backlash to it, and how this divide is not necessarily generational, but one of competing visions of feminism, social vs. individualist.

-- Lynsey Grosfield on freelance writing and the situation of women in it.

-- J. Hoberman on his website, "Why I cannot review Jonas Mekas's Conversations with Filmmakers"; an epilogue to Michael Casper's piece on Jonas Mekas in the New York Review of Books.

-- A group of Latinx critics zero in on aspects of representation in Sicario: Day of the Soldado that have been missed by most other critics.

-- A round-table on Hannah Gadsby's Nanette at the feminist, queer website Autostraddle. (If you haven't seen Nanette, best to go in cold, without reading anything about it.)

-- Eric Allen Hatch on being hopeful for the future of arthouse programming.

-- Rebecca Solnit on the "politics of disconnection" in the world today.

-- On Europe's #MeToo debate and "the threat of change."

-- Sady Doyle on the pop culture roots of the Incel movement.

-- The program notes for this intriguing film series at BAM (in Brooklyn) open with a Sara Ahmed quote (“If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness?”). What a great idea: framing these mostly (over-)familiar movies (like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, Gran Torino, etc) through the lens of whiteness. Also see: Craig D. Lindsey's article on the series in the Village Voice.

-- A great interview with Alberto Toscano on the enduring importance of Marxism and reading Marx today.

-- Shelley Stamp, who is curating Kino-Lorber's "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" DVD/Blu-ray set:

"One of the most important messages I hope to convey is that so many of the debates we’re having today were actually settled 100 years ago. Can women direct action pictures? Yes. Can female leads carry pictures at the box office? Yes. Can “women’s issues” (like reproductive politics, sexuality, family life) appeal to a wide audience? Yes. Ignoring this history and continuing to debate issues that were settled so long ago makes today’s generation of female filmmakers think they have to reinvent the wheel..."

-- Essential reading: Ben Tarnoff on big data and the need to democratize it:

"Big data is extractive. It involves extracting data from various “mines”—Facebook, say, or a connected piece of industrial equipment. This raw material must then be “refined” into potentially valuable knowledge by combining it with other data and analyzing it.

Extractive industries need to be closely regulated because they generate all sorts of externalities—costs that aren’t borne by the company, but are instead passed on to society as a whole. There are certain kinds of resources that we shouldn’t be extracting at all, because those costs are far too high, like fossil fuels. There are others that we should only be extracting under very specific conditions, with adequate protections for workers, the environment, and the broader public. And democratic participation is crucial: you shouldn’t build a mine in a community that doesn’t want it.

These principles offer a framework for governing big data. There are certain kinds of data we shouldn’t be extracting. There are certain places where we shouldn’t build data mines. And the incredibly complex and opaque process whereby raw data is refined into knowledge needs to be cracked wide open, so we can figure out what further rules are required.

Like any extractive endeavor, big data produces externalities. The extractors reap profits, while the rest of us are left with the personal, social, and environmental consequences. These range from the annihilation of privacy to algorithmic racism to a rapidly warming climate—the world’s data centers, for instance, put about as much carbon into the atmosphere as air travel.

Society, not industry, should decide how and where resources are extracted and refined. Big data is no different."

Monday, January 01, 2018

2017: A Personal Round-Up


At the end of a monstrous year, here is a personal inventory of some things that were in fact good and life-affirming and precious in 2017 ...

3 Favorite New Films:

Western (Valeska Grisebach, Germany)
Strong Island (Yance Ford, USA)
The Future Perfect (Nele Wohlatz, Argentina)

3 Favorite Older Films Seen for the First Time:

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, UK, 2009)
Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, USA, 1982)
Falbalas (Jacques Becker, 1946, France)

Publication of the Year:

Sophie Mayer's PDF collection From Rape to Resistance: Taking Back the Screen (it can be ordered at the link for £5).

If You Read Only One Film Studies Essay This Year, Make it This One:

Erika Balsom's "The Reality-Based Community" at e-flux.

So Glad I Discovered These 3 Online Film Critics:

Angelica Jade Bastién
Sally Jane Black
Abbey Bender

3 New Film Books:

Rashna Wadia Richards and David T. Johnson (editors), For the Love of Cinema: Teaching Our Passion In and Outside the Classroom
Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg (editors), Documentary Across Disciplines
Annette Michelson, On the Eve of the Future: Selected Writings on Film

3 Older Film Books I Returned To Often:

B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut
Sophie Mayer, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema
Antonia Lant (editor), Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writings on the First Fifty Years of Cinema

If You Randomly Opened My Bag, Chances Are You Would Find a Book By:

Adrienne Rich

3 Online Film Journals I Love:

The Cine-Files
cléo
Another Gaze

Shout-out to Friends with Websites that are Treasures:

Cristina Álvarez López
Adrian Martin
Jonathan Rosenbaum

These Writers are Wonderful and More People Should Read Them:

Veronica Fitzpatrick
Genevieve Yue
Michael Sicinski
Leo Goldsmith (also: here and here)

3 Heavy End-of-Year Lists:

Roger Koza has gathered nominations of best films of the year from 135 programmers and critics from 36 countries; Sight & Sound has rounded up the best video essays of 2017; and David Davidson has collected top 10 lists from a wide range of cinephiles, critics and filmmakers.

3 New Non-Film Books:

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life
McKenzie Wark, General Intellects
Simon Reynolds, Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century

3 Memorable Trips:

Washington DC (for the Women's March)
Bologna (for Il Ritrovato)
Chicago (for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference)

3 Memorable Concerts:

The xx (with Kelela opening)
Earth, Wind & Fire (with Chic opening)
Phoenix

Finally, because I'm terrible at keeping track of things I do, I want to plunk down here a record of a few things I wrote: James Gray A-Z lexicon for LOLA; on 100 years of immigration cinema for Film Comment; on teen films and Olivier Assayas for TIFF; on doggies in Aki Kaurismäki films for TIFF; on Marlon Riggs' Black Is ... Black Ain't for Film Comment (not online); and on Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake for Criterion.

Any favorites of yours in these categories? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Friday, December 08, 2017

TIFF 2017: "Waru"


One of the best films at TIFF was made by eight directors, all Māori women. Waru, from New Zealand, consists of eight “chapters”—each by a different filmmaker, each shot in a single, unbroken take. The action in every chapter takes place on the morning of the funeral for a young boy who has died at the hands of his caregiver. The film is named for the boy, whose voice is heard at the beginning and the end: “When I died, I saw the whole world.” Even though we never see him, we feel his spirit throughout.

I can imagine this slender movie (it runs less than 90 minutes) functioning as a large and generative foundation for an entire course whose scope might include: cinematic form, Māori culture, indigenous representation, feminism, and national counter-history. The experience of watching it felt absolutely monumental to me because it was working on all these levels.

The characters we encounter in the eight chapters vary widely in their proximity of connection to the boy: some are family members and relatives, but many have little or no link to the narrative proper; they help constitute a portrait of a community that is affected by his death or is dealing with the larger crisis of children at risk. Sarah Watt explains that “the nature of whānau (as in "community" rather than our Pākehā [white New Zealander] definition of "nuclear family") lies at the heart of Waru – and it is our whole community that suffers when one of our children dies.” Sophie Mayer points out, in her useful analysis, that “the result is a film that differs profoundly from the Strong Female Character isolationism beloved of supposedly ‘progressive’ Hollywood films.”

All the principal characters in the eight chapters are women, and one of the movie’s strongest features is that it both creates characters whose presence registers vividly and engages large, systemic issues that are urgent and important. One of these issues is the racism embedded in national media. Miriama Aoake cites a recent study showing that New Zealand mainstream media over-reports stories of Māori (as opposed to white) child abuse by over 40%:

The complexity of this racism is reflected in Waru: The side-eye glare from spying neighbours. Reckless public consumption of media ignorance. Verbal jabs distinguishing the 'good' Māori from the 'bad'. Murmurs of a colonial lie, the 'warrior gene' theory. Unforgivable misunderstandings of Māori culture touted as truth.

An insidious, ever-present patriarchy; the widespread effects of poverty upon families; and the threat of everyday violence: all of these hang in the air of the film. And yet Waru never feels like a middlebrow, “issue” or “social problem” film, probably because it is narratively ambiguous, truly surprising in its range of settings, rich in character interaction but not in explanation, and culturally dense—especially to this viewer who felt both deeply inquisitive about Māori culture and history and ashamed for his nearly total ignorance of it. The movie also defies the traditional (and traditionally male) auteur cinema model with an approach that splinters a unified idea of authorship, devising a structure appropriate to this impulse. In every way—narratively, formally, thematically, authorially—Waru feels vital and new.

All I want for Christmas is … global distribution for this precious and powerful movie.

pic: The eight directors of the film (in no particular order): Briar Grace-Smith, Casey Kaa, Ainsley Gardiner, Katie Wolfe, Chelsea Cohen, Renae Maihi, Paula Jones, Awanui Simich-Pene.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

TIFF 2017: Chloe Zhao's "The Rider"


Years from now, when we look back at 2017’s TIFF, we might recognize it as historic: the moment when one of the world’s largest film festivals launched an initiative to systemically address the imbalance between men- and women-made movies. As a result, 33% of the films screened at the festival this year were directed by women—significantly higher than ever before. I spent 8 days in Toronto and, as it turned out, the best and most memorable films I saw there were nearly all made by women. Among them was Chinese-American director Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, about a young Lakota Sioux cowboy, set on a reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

The film tells the story of Brady, a rodeo rider and horse trainer in his early twenties who has sustained a severe rodeo injury to the head. He has been advised by his doctor to give up riding, but he cannot accept this verdict. Given all the expectations culturally instilled in him since childhood, that would be a personal defeat. As his condition worsens, his frustration and despair deepen. Remarkably, we witness Brady’s struggle within a vivid social context: his tough-guy dad Tim, his autistic sister Lilly, and his cowboy friends including Lane, formerly headed for rodeo success but now in a facility, permanently handicapped by a fall from a horse.

A key theme in the film singled out by critics—not to mention by Zhao herself, in interviews—is the gradual vanishing of certain traditions and practices. Todd McCarthy, in Variety, laments the passing of an era which valued “stoic reserve” and “a tough way of life, one that produces and requires a strong sense of identity and values.” In an interview with Bilge Ebiri, Zhao remarks on how Brady “honors a way of life that is rapidly disappearing in Middle America, this identity people have that they try to hold onto.” The film is especially effective because Brady and his family play versions of themselves, and it was his own serious injury from a fall that inspired Zhao to create a fictional narrative around it.

I must be honest: McCarthy’s nostalgic celebration of a “strong sense of identity and values” makes me a little uneasy. Rather, what sparked my own personal resonance with the film was something different: the way Zhao dramatizes the quiet and relentless pressures of masculinity and its norms in Brady’s everyday life. What is palpable in The Rider is the presence of a restrictive view of what a man is or does: we see, hear, and feel it as a permanent background in Brady’s interactions with his dad, with his friends, at the rodeo, and in his world at large. We also witness Brady’s inner struggle with this masculinist set of values, and the way it makes him feel—acutely, a failure, ashamed to walk away from the rodeo.

The sociologist Michael Kimmel, one of the leading scholars of masculinity, based his much-cited book Guyland (2008) on field interviews he conducted with hundreds of men across the country—all between the ages of 16 and 26, the period of transition from “boys to men.” In the book, he describes the key features of the masculine code, “the collection of attitudes, values and traits that together composes what it means to be a man” at this time in America. Among them is the injunction to not admit weakness. Think of the variety of everyday sayings that echo this quality: “Take it like a man”; “Ride or die”; “It’s all good.”

To exhibit weakness is to admit emotional vulnerability—and thus to risk association with the feminine. “We’ve become relentless cowboys,” Kimmel writes, using an analogy that turns out to be accidentally apt here, “riding the fences, checking the boundary line between masculinity and femininity, making sure nothing slips over. The possibilities for being unmasked are everywhere.” To be a man is to do everything possible to keep the mask in place—everything is fine, everything is under control—belying the turmoil under the surface.

Some of The Rider’s most touching scenes are those where Brady trains and interacts with horses: where we witness his feminine side. He appears preternaturally sensitive to the animals, their every movement, posture, and glance, and speaks to them with a sense of true intimacy. But this sensitivity manifests itself in a socially sanctioned setting, applied to a specific kind of work—thus legitimizing it. By contrast, we witness a scene late in the film when Brady breaks down and cries in his car; Zhao confessed that shooting this was not easy. Even though she was in the car alone with him and her camera, the scene proved enormously demanding for Brady because, as he told her, it had been seven years since he last cried. (At the time of filming, he was 20 years old.) Zhao recalls that once the scene was done, Brady disappeared for a while because he didn’t want anyone to see or suspect that he had been crying.

Kimmel argues that masculinity in our culture hinges upon the repudiation of the feminine. From an early age, boys are taught to suppress their emotions and deny their emotional needs, and studies have shown that boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed as “emotionally disturbed.” Paraphrasing social psychologist Robert Brannon, Kimmel writes: “What makes a man so reliable in a crisis is not that he is able to respond fully and appropriately to the situation at hand, but rather that he resembles an inanimate object. A rock, a pillar, a species of tree.” He even quotes the notoriously right-wing David Mamet, who makes an observation that is painful but contains a measure of truth: “Women, in men’s minds, occupy such a low place on the social ladder of this country that it’s useless to define yourself in terms of a woman. What men need is men’s approval.” Kimmel adds: “[In our culture] Women are for possessing, not emulating.” Little wonder that we are now living through a year that has seen the most flagrantly misogynist President, the highest mass killings count in this country for a decade (98% of them committed by men), and an unprecedented deluge of revelations of sexual harassment and assault by men in high places.

As we see in the film, masculine ideology finds its channels of transmission primarily through networks of interactions between men—such as friends and father figures—all of whom play a part in quietly policing male behavior. In an interview with Darren Hughes, Zhao noted that Brady and his friends “raise each other,” forming a close brotherhood. (His arm even bears the tattoo “Brothers Forever.”) Given Brady’s declining health, his dad Tim makes it clear that he does not want him to continue riding, asking in frustration at one point, “Why don’t you listen to me?” Brady reply is heartbreaking: “I’ve been listening to you all these years. You’re the one who said be a cowboy and man up.” The construction of masculinity is a life-long process of repetition and reinforcement that begins early in childhood, and performs its work on a daily basis—making it hard or impossible to undo casually.

If masculinity was (for me) the primary theme of The Rider on first viewing, there is a secondary, understated theme at work that also deserves close attention: the conditions of reservation life. As Zhao remarked to Darren about the people in the film:

They live in these government houses that have stripped away their connection with the land for generations. They’re stuck in this man-made, fluorescent, industrial-looking world. It’s claustrophobic—like, eighteen people per house. And then you go outside and it’s just majestic. That contrast is quite confusing. It says everything about what we did to the Native Americans. So we wanted to use colors that are found in nature in the house: blue for Brady, pink for Lilly. And then use a lot of fluorescent light.

I look forward to rewatching The Rider through this lens of life on the reservation—and also catching up with Zhao’s previous film, the documentary Songs my Brothers Taught Me (2015), which is set on the same reservation, and tells the story of the relationship between a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister.


Monday, September 18, 2017

TIFF 2017: Round-Up


Best-of-the-Fest:

Western (Valeska Grisebach, Germany)
Faces Places (Agnès Varda, France)
Zama (Lucretia Martel, Argentina)
The Rider (Chloe Zhao, USA)
The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland)

Strong:

The Day After (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
The Girlfriend Experience, Season 2 (Amy Seimetz & Lodge Kerrigan, USA)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, USA)
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, France)
PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams, Canada)
3/4 (Ilian Metev, Bulgaria)

Good+Interesting+Worth Seeing:

Le Fort des Fous (Narimane Mari, France/Algeria)
The Nothing Factory (Pedro Pinho, Portugal)
The Future Ahead (Constanza Novick, Argentina)
Onward Lossless Follows (Michael Robinson, USA)
Strangely Ordinary this Devotion (Dani Leventhal & Sheilah Wilson, USA)

Discovery Of The Fest:

3/4 (Ilian Metev, Bulgaria)

Others Appreciated These Films More Than I Did:

Cocote (Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, Dominican Republic)
The Florida Project (Sean Baker, USA)
Good Luck (Ben Russell, USA)
I am not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, Zambia/UK)

Best Q&A:

Blake Williams, PROTOTYPE

Films That Will Most Demand Multiple Viewings:

Zama (Lucretia Martel, Argentina)
PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams, Canada)
3/4 (Ilian Metev, Bulgaria)

Best Soundtrack Music:

Igorr, for Jeannette (Bruno Dumont, France)

Films I Most Regret Not Seeing:

First Reformed (Paul Schrader, USA)
Bodied (Joseph Kahn, USA)
Ex Libris (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
(Hate-watching) mother! (Darren Aronofsky, USA)

Fuck All Films that Fetishize Killing and/or Cutting of Animals:

Cocote (Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, Dominican Republic)
The Nothing Factory (Pedro Pinho, Portugal)
I am not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, Zambia/UK)

Surprise Appearance at the Festival:

Lisandro Alonso, as producer of The Future Ahead (Constanza Novick, Argentina)

Films I Wish TIFF Had Screened:

Bright Sunshine In (Claire Denis, France)
Milla (Valérie Massadian, France)
The Apple of My Eye (Axelle Ropert, France)

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Disenchantments of "La La Land"


Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has turned out to be a fascinatingly divisive film. It has enchanted thousands and swept up a record 14 Oscar nominations. It is – I will readily admit – not without its pleasures. But I nevertheless found myself troubled by it in many ways. My “issues” with it fall into six broad categories. (Sorry – this movie pushed several of my buttons!)

These categories, some of which overlap, are: the movie’s masculinism; its view of jazz; the way jazz intersects with race; the movie’s conspicuously individualist view of art-making and success; Chazelle’s directorial personality; and the movie’s nostalgia.

Not all movies are equally stimulating for critics to write about – either for or against – but La La Land has ignited a remarkable number and range of responses. I'd like to enlist writings by ten or so fellow critics here, and weave their voices into this post. I will forego all narrative exposition, and assume that readers have seen the film.

To begin with gender: there is a stark difference in how the movie depicts its male and female protagonists, Sebastian and Mia. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Morgan Leigh Davies writes:

[Sebastian] is the author of their relationship: he comes to ask her out at work; he introduces her to jazz; he takes her to see Rebel Without a Cause for research (despite the fact that she is the actor and supposed cinephile); he suggests that she write something herself since she can’t get a part, prompting her to write a one-woman play and quit her job … later, when Mia’s play has failed and she has retreated home to Nevada, it is Sebastian who gets the call from a casting agency about a major audition, and drives out to find her and implores her to give acting one last go … the movie is not hers. It is Sebastian’s.

In Chazelle’s cinema, it is consistently men who are teachers, guides, and owners of knowledge, while women are their students – vessels whose own personalities and histories are often ill-defined or relatively insubstantial. Davies notes:

[Chazelle] is particularly attached to scenes in which men teach women how to play musical instruments, explain music to them, or play music for them: [in Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench] Guy (Jason Palmer) teaches his mother to play the piano and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) gets a lesson from a male drummer; Guy plays for both his girlfriend Madeline and Elena (Sandha Khin), the girl that he leaves her for; later, Madeline dates another older musician. Andrew [in Whiplash] rattles off information about the music playing in the pizza to his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Sebastian, of course, plays for Mia and teaches her to appreciate jazz. Music, then, effectively serves as both an emotional conduit and a subtle affirmation of power: where Fletcher [in Whiplash] uses his status as Andrew’s teacher as a cudgel to assert his dominance, Guy and Sebastian — and, indeed, Andrew — maintain their status as the more worldly, dominant partner in a subtler way, through the assertion of their artistic skill and cultural knowledge. With the exception of Mia, the women on the receiving end of this treatment are directionless and therefore ideal counterparts: Madeline’s field in graduate school is never specified, Nicole doesn’t even know her major, and all we know about Elena is that she is so incompetent that she has to have a man show her how to boil water.

It must also be admitted: the scene of Sebastian whitemansplaining jazz to Mia is high cringe. In his post "White Jazz Narrative" at MTV, Ira Madison III observes sarcastically:

Early on, after a few chance run-ins lead to a burgeoning flirtation, Mia makes a damning confession: She doesn’t like jazz. This is a big mistake. Only tell a Male Music Nerd that you do not like their preferred music if you have at least four free hours on your schedule to be taught exactly why you’re wrong. Seb responds by dragging Mia to a jazz club in the middle of the day. “It’s conflict and compromise,” explains Seb, talking loudly over the live band that they came to see. “It’s new every time … and it’s dying.” … Mia is ultimately convinced, seemingly not by the music itself (which Seb keeps talking over) but by the passion and enthusiasm with which he presents it to her. “People love what people are passionate about,” she concedes.

Jazz is famously and primarily an ensemble art form, but Chazelle’s view of it is problematically individualistic – and uninterested in any details of what it is or what it feels like to actually learn or make jazz. Writing about Whiplash in the New Yorker, Richard Brody called Chazelle’s vision of jazz “a grotesque and ludicrous caricature”:

Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam … He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not … with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history … In short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition—the concert band and the exposure it provides—and nothing else.

In fact, in La La Land, both protagonists are resolute individualists whose art involves only themselves. Brody notes:

Mia … tries to make a name for herself by writing, self-financing, and performing a one-woman show—and her biggest audition involves her solo performance of a monologue of her own making, for a starring role in a movie that has no script and will, a casting agent says, be “built around” her. Sebastian wants to open a jazz club and wants to play jazz (“pure jazz,” he says), but his pianistic ideal, and the setting in which he shines, is solo.

The couple of times we see Sebastian play with others – in Keith’s (John Legend’s) band or the ‘80s pop cover group – it is clearly signaled by the film that the music is somehow beneath him, and he is “selling out”.

Brody also points out the film's lack of interest in detailing Mia's character or her work:

Mia writes and produces and stages her one-woman show at a theatre, but Chazelle has no interest in the vitality and conflict and fascinating details of that process—there’s nothing about her working with others on it, whether a stage director or a lighting technician. Nothing about the making of sets, nothing about rehearsing, nothing about the concrete details of the business. When Mia visits her family in Boulder City, there’s no family life whatsoever on view. Chazelle is interested in Mia not as a character or as a person but as an ornament, a symbol of a kind of dream and a kind of success.

A simple-minded nostalgia pervades the film, whose constant refrain, Michael Koresky writes, is "to remind viewers of lost things—real musicals, real jazz, real romance, real movies.” Nick Pinkerton adds:

Ever since the movie musical’s decline as a popular form, there have been periodic attempts to revive it. Some of these have been artistically successful, others have been Les Misérables (2012), but almost all have conceded to the fact that they don’t make them like they used to because you can’t make them like they used to, and that the musical needs to exploit new forms, new technologies, and new subject matter in order to reach a new public. In this La La Land is an exception—it doesn’t want to bridge the last sixty-odd years so much as pretend they never happened, to return to an imagined Eden of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle and audience innocence.

Jazz is an important subject of this movie — Sebastian’s passion to “preserve” it defines his character. This, I believe, gives us the permission to be exacting and attentive to the way the movie views and depicts jazz. Brody points out that it is, specifically, classic jazz (from the 1920s to the 1950s) that is valorized by the film “as if nothing of importance has happened since the nineteen-sixties—the age when artists overturned conventions and shattered the bonds of classicism. [Chazelle] venerates and celebrates bygone methods and mannerisms because he applies them like formulas …”

Chazelle is smart and knows exactly what he’s doing here – and so we get the scene in which Keith (John Legend) asks Sebastian, “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding on to the past but jazz is about the future.” But this gesture from Chazelle is pure disingenuousness. He simply tosses in the question – thus pretending to significance – but the film does absolutely nothing to pursue it or play it out. If Keith’s band is one of the “futures” of jazz – as the movie clearly seems to imply – we are unambiguously asked to view contemporary jazz as watered-down and inferior to the classic jazz that Jeb fetishizes.

And so it is with movies too. La La Land looks back at a small, select history of cinema – 1950s Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, Jacques Demy, Rebel Without A Cause – and raids them for its inspirations. Justin Hurwitz’s songs – their melodies, harmonies, and arrangements – lean too heavily on Michel Legrand, and (for me) struggle to distinguish themselves. They sound blandly pleasant, but evaporated from my ears the moment the end credits rolled.

According to Michael Sicinski:

The songs are trite when they aren't outright unmemorable, and Seb's piano theme just seemed like sad random tinkling. This is a problem, given that Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has no real personality apart from his love of jazz. There's an awkward pull here between the actual quality on display and the almost art-frat aggression with which the viewer is relentlessly pummeled with the whole Romanticist, never-give-up-on-your-dreams business. The fact that John Legend is positioned as the sellout option here (to say nothing of "I Ran," one of the greatest 80s synth-pop hits this side of Gary Numan) just adds to the sense that something about this world is way out of whack.

I must also confess that I was irritated by Chazelle’s overall approach in this movie, his attack. Fernando Croce, whose account of the film from Toronto was one of the earliest critiques of it, pointed out its “bellicose approach to music and dance” and its “relentlessly aggressive touch”:

Why have the introductory highway hoedown just unfold in one take, when you can also include Matrix-style camera swivels to capture bicycle pirouettes in mid-air? [The film is] designed to not so much seduce audiences as pummel them into submission. Swoon, goddamnit, swoon!

Finally, it’s impossible to look away from the fact that Sebastian is a “white savior” for jazz, a profoundly black music. Madison is snarky but persuasive here:

[Sebastian/Gosling] eventually opens up his own jazz club that’s wildly successful and gains him a black apprentice who’s pretty good on the piano himself, but not too good, otherwise he’d own Gosling’s club himself! The nightclub audience laughs at this joke, but in the film audience, it lands with a thud, because you know what? If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz against the odds and against modern reinventions of the genre (from white musicians like, say, Mayer Hawthorne), you'd think that artist would be black […] Positioning Ryan Gosling as jazz’s white savior while relegating black musicians to the background left a sour taste in my mouth.

Adam Nayman adds:

In La La Land, African-American musicians are rendered (as in Whiplash) as measuring sticks for an ascendant white performer’s monomaniacal notions of “purity,” while African-American actors are either used as benign props—as when Sebastian encounters a sweet (and totally mute) old couple while singing to himself at the end of a pier—or else as signifiers of authenticity (Gosling’s exuberant club-land buddies) or a lack thereof (John Legend’s smoothie sell-out, who may not be the villain of the piece but doesn’t make much sense as a character anyway).

To close, let me point to (and excerpt from) Will Brooker’s sharp and funny piece on the movie:

La La Land deserves its nominations and more: it deserves to win Best Picture. Because it isn’t escapism, it’s a story for our age. Ryan Gosling, who pluckily spent three months learning piano to play the protagonist, is the perfect hero in a year when the new president of the United States can take over with no training. His reality-show-standard song and dance routines are perfectly suited to this new era, when a mediocre businessman and second-rate television celebrity can become Commander-in-Chief. If Trump’s Education Secretary can’t write grammatically or answer questions on basic policy, how can we criticise an actor for less-than-perfect performances? Our current culture doesn’t just excuse amateurs, it elevates them to the highest roles.

Some have claimed that La La Land appropriates the black art form of jazz, with Gosling in the white saviour role as its purist champion. But what could be more 2017 than a movie that celebrates mansplaining and whitewashing, that has Gosling talking loudly over older, African American musicians to impress his date, and then shows them nodding appreciatively, grateful for his support? […]

Meanwhile, John Legend’s marginalised appearance as Gosling’s one black friend, who begs him to join a band then sells out the genre with his tacky commercialism, perfectly suits an Academy Awards list that congratulates itself on avoiding “Oscars So White” controversy, yet [overwhelmingly] nominates white men and women over people of colour …