“I mentioned earlier Coppola’s belief that ‘something happens’ to the spectators as they sit in the dark and watch a movie. After he saw Blade Runner, Guillermo del Toro simply stated: ‘I never saw the world the same way again.’ If the movie is in part about replicants contaminated by the reality in which they live to the point of feeling as humans do, it is also about the way duplicate reality contaminates humans to the point of disrupting the feeling of their own humanity. In this sense, Pauline Kael may have been right in stating, when she first saw the movie: “It had not been thought out in human terms.”
“Put another way, tradition and community are not mere inheritances passively received form the past and certainly not merely fetters on human freedom. Tradition, to early nineteenth-century workers, included both their craft skills and the rights they claimed for this “human capital” against the incursions of inhuman capital. Tradition is in part the process by which successful claims to rights are reproduced in each generation. Some of these rights may be encoded in formal law; all are underpinned by transmissions of culture and understanding. Not only does the reproduction of tradition require action (and therefore always involves the production of new culture at the same time). It may also require struggle, when the claims posed within tradition—to justice, for example, or fairness or food when hungry—are attacked by other ideas—say of efficiency or one-sided revisions of property rights. Likewise, community is both an achievement and a capacity. It constitutes a field of action within which people can pursue the objects of their lives. It may be more or less egalitarian but usually empowers some more than others. It constrains more than enables. But is also incorporates investments made—sometimes over generations—in building it. It is not only a ground for individual and family projects but also the basis for much collective action. And communities were basic to the struggles of nineteenth-century workers against the incursions of capitalism, perhaps more basic than class, though the two are not contradictory.”
Robbins Barstow was a pioneering maker of home movies—Disneyland Dream (1956), which you see above, is one of literally hundreds of films he completed from 1929 (when he first received a camera) until his death in 2010, many of which star his immediate family. Disneyland Dreamwas named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2008, with the following citation:
“The Barstow family films a memorable home movie of their trip to Disneyland. Robbins and Meg Barstow, along with their children Mary, David and Daniel were among 25 families who won a free trip to the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., as part of a “Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape” contest sponsored by 3M. Through vivid color and droll narration (“The landscape was very different from back home in Connecticut”), we see a fantastic historical snapshot of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Catalina Island, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and Disneyland in mid-1956. Home movies have assumed a rapidly increasing importance in American cultural studies as they provide a priceless and authentic record of time and place.”
I watched the 35-minute film (which features a cameo by a very young Steve Martin at the 20:20 mark, wearing a top hat and hawking guidebooks) for the first time yesterday and was struck by its seeming perversion of techniques later perfected by the experimental video artists of the 1970s—or highbrow art in general, in this most quotidian form of hamming-it-up for the camera. Part of that is probably triggered by the instant nostalgia now, more or less obviously, shopped around by our contemporary culture—indeed, there’s a lot to say about Barstow’s 16mm-amateur outtakes that lines up with issues of public vs. private intimacy, the ubiquity of the non-place (Marc Augé’s ever determinate/indeterminate anthropological positioning), and the secular pilgrimage. But there are also moments in the film that directly echo the verité techniques of filmmakers like Shirley Clarke and the Maysles brothers, including carefully choreographed segments of glee-struck family members fainting (which would not be out of place alongside the Merce Cunningham-sanctioned movements in Nam June Paik’s TV Garden), along with a 60-second series of Barstow’s children diving in reverse back out of the pool that channels the later well-known photograph of artist James Turrell’s Heavy Water installation.
How to make sense of the mix of tradition, future-past idealization, the cultural mode of home-movies in the twentieth century, and the place of Disneyland in the middle of all of this—that capitalist holy land? I’ve been toting a copy of Craig Calhoun’s The Roots of Radicalism in my bag for weeks, and by pure coincidence, reached a point very near its conclusion today that did the job for me. I think about what Calhoun says about traditions as repeated claims to certain rights reproduced by generations—and what it might mean to put establish the pressure of reproduction in these films as a double-bind (the domestic family structures so often a material subject for the camera’s lens in 1950s amateur-film documentation—literally, the reproductive ties that bind—conjoin with the technologically mediated reproduction of time and place). All of that is a kind of academic double-talk, though, and what’s really happening is something closer to the tindersticks of human and inhuman capital rubbing against each other, igniting memories that then become not quite real.
Disneyland Dream is certainly scripted, but via a sort of “real time” script that (again) precurses reality television—Barstow is so assured of his family’s success in 3M’s Disneyland giveaway that he films events as they unfold with the finesse of a carefully paced sitcom. Though the voice-over narration wasn’t added until many years later—Barstow used to live-narrate the film in a yearly backyard screening—there is something happening, moment-to-moment, where the filmmaker seems to possess an uncanny instinct about how his film will later be received as a cultural artifact from a defunct time, place, and sensibility. Part of this is specific to the genre of home-movies—or their cinematic counterparts, as in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—mortality, in these intimate testaments to limited duration, is intensified.
But back to Disneyland: I don’t think we need to resurrect Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard to consider that part of what lends an aspect of preternatural knowing to Barstow’s film is the after-image of capitalism, haunting us with its soon-to-be decay at just the moment of its fervor (I’m thinking in particular of Barstow’s slow-take at his ivy-drenched, brand-new Pasadena hotel, or the carefully traced elation on his children’s faces as they enter the gates of the freshly minted Magic Kingdom). And in a moment of necessary voyeurism into one family’s carefully preserved adventure, my how that after-image can glow.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–82), hard-living, frenetic (libertine, bourgeois-scourging) New German filmmaker would have turned sixty-seven today, had he survived even into his forties. Strong-armed by the influence of Brechtian theater and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), Fassbinder went on to direct forty films and made-for-television performances—though like the Frenchman L. J. M. Daguerre and the American John Waters (puppet theater), Fassbinder’s background was the stage, and it showed. His early work is marked by a static camera and dialogue not conceivably of this world; he goes on the record in a piece later reprinted for Cineaste, where he states:
“I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”
To watch a Fassbinder film is to participate, if only through mediation, in the tailwinds of the director’s cultural persona, his bad-boy whipping-up of a post-fascist, prejudicial German zeitgeist. To cogently locate him politically, and to infer his contributions to post-war, avant-garde cinema nearly three decades after his death, is a bit trickier.
Coincidentally, it was almost thirty-eight years ago to the day that Fassbinder’s Martha premiered on German television. Martha was the film Fassbinder completed immediately prior to Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (perhaps his most acclaimed production), though it was initially released in the aftermath of that film’s successes. Shot entirely on 16mm, and dealing with typical themes for the director (the fascist undertones of traditional family structures, physical and emotional paralysis, sadism, hysteria, dead cats, obsession, exceedingly banal-yet-mortified facial expressions), it was Martha‘s DVD-release in 2004 that first allowed the film to reach many American audiences.
Never one to shy away from controversy, longtime critic and blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum took on the film—and Fassbinder—in “Martha: Fassbinder’s Uneasy Testament,” featured in his 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition, which collects some of Rosenbaum’s most discriminating pieces from the past four decades, including several like this one, which focus on newly circulating releases and other developments of the digital age.
An excerpt from Rosenbaum (where Rosenbaum calls-out Fassbinder’s Andy Warhol-qua-John Belushi schtick) follows below:
Gellhorn was perhaps a badass at both pursuits (She demurs, “I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents.”), but definitely the former. A lifelong leftist, after she divorced Hemingway in 1945, she went on to cover wars in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Central America, penning nearly twenty books, and making her home in more than nineteen international locations before her death by self-inflicted overdose at the age of 89 in 1998.
One of those books is A Stricken Field, which fictionalizes a journalist’s return to Prague after its annexation (1938), in a narrative voice both frustrating and futile, as the main character struggles to assist its refugees and make sense of the once-proud democracy’s difficult plight under the Gestapo. Here, Gellhorn’s voice is both clear and forceful, more reliant on journalistic observation and political reflection than Hemingway’s staccato figures of speech, but still shaped by the years they overlapped as lovers and correspondents to war and second-wave modernism. In many ways A Stricken Field is a fine follow-up to Hemingway & Gellhorn, showcasing Gellhorn at the height of her powers, self-helming a fictionalization of her life as a correspondent under critical regime changes and conditions of duress.
To watch the movement’s rhetorical development and the increasing exile, imprisonment, and death of its leaders alongside the community’s—and nation’s—growing disillusionment with the Vietnam War, Nixon administration politics, and urban poverty, is a fascinating exercise in the nuances of discrimination and endemic societal problems. To watch all of this alongside a sometimes sympathetic, often curious, and largely culturally distanced assortment of Swedish journalists (drawn from over twenty televised broadcasts) leaves you pondering an almost inexplicable gapâ€”between that time and the present, between these two societies (often united by their anti-Vietnam political stance), and between the roles of participant and observer. What sort of historical reading properly prepares you for a bus of blonde-haired Swedish investigative journalists being chastised about exploring Harlem, as their tour guide uncomfortably stumbles out a comment about how their fear is shared by better (“better?” “Can I say that?”) African American citizens?
In 2001, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, edited the collectionIs It Nation Time? Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism—thirty-five years after Adam Clayton Powell Jr. delivered, as part of his baccalaureate address at Howard University, an early version of the phrase: “To demand these God-given rights is to seek black power.” Is It Nation Time? collects new and classic writings on the Black Power Movement and its legacy by renowned thinkers—including Glaude, Cornel West, and Robin D. G. Kelley—in order to tackle contemporary issues such as the commodification of blackness, class tensions, and the larger discourse surrounding black nationalism.
A precursor to Is It Nation Time?, William L. Van Deburg’s New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975, follows the literal arc of much of The Black Power Mixtape’s historical trajectory, offering a comprehensive account of the Black Power Movement’s rise and fall, from its preconditions to ideologies that straddled everything from labor and campus life to sports, soul music, theology, and nationalism. The book garnered the Gustavus Myers Center’s Outstanding Book Award (1993), and was praised by Bob Blauner in the New York Times as a “densely textured evocation of one of American history’s most revolutionary transformations in ethnic group consciousness.”
Angela Davis, who recently retired from the University of California, Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness program, where she long served as a professor (she’s currently Distinguished Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Syracuse University), has several key moments in The Black Power Mixtape (including one that demonstrated the journalists’ unusual access to Davis during her 1971-72 stay in a Marin County prison cell). The most pressing of these occurs during the conclusion of one interview, where Davis states (in response to a question about violence in the movement): “When someone asks me about violence, I find it incredible,” she says. “A person asking that can have no idea about what black people have gone through in this country.”
To understand the raw emotion and power of Davis’s articulation, Is It Nation Time? and New Day in Babylon are fine places to start—but to place her words in the context of our own continued struggles for social justice and equality today, where institutional racism, economic disparity, the struggle for GLBTQ rights, and other issues play out in daily headlines, is to hear an echo of her furious intensity as part of a soundtrack whose audience continues to grow.