Ron Holloway (1933-2009)

December 19, 2009 at 4:35 am

It was less than a year ago, in February 2009, that I saw Ron Holloway and his wife Dorothea, at the FEST in Belgrade, where Ron and Slobodan Sijan had organised a round table on women-filmmakers in Eastern Europe. I knew that he was not well, but did not expect that he only had months left to live. He seemed as busy and as active as always, passing around copies of his ubiquitous publication KINO: German Cinema, which he had been publishing for many years (since 1979, as it seems) and which highlighted German and East European cinema and festivals. I just received the publication that resulted out of this project about ten days ago; one feels like life continues and that Ron has not left us.

My first encounter with Ron was through a book of his, Bulgarian Cinema (1986), which I read in the early 1990s. It strikes me that, like the cinema to which it is dedicated, this book is now being almost forgotten. It is not mentioned in the obituaries I read, and yet it is one of Ron’s most serious academic efforts. It is a systematic and deep study, in which he introduces the concept of Poetic Cinema, a key term that was adopted later on by Daniel Goulding and other academics and gained currency through its wider application to the cinema of Eastern Europe at large. This study remains probably the most academic study of Ron’s. I am deeply grateful for it as it greatly influenced and shaped my own scholarly interests.

I had several opportunities to work with Ron over the years. One of the projects was special issue on Bulgarian cinema which I edited for the on-line journal Kinokultura in 2006. Here is a link to the article we co-authored, entitled Hoping for a Bulgarian Film Revival.

There were several occasions over the years that Ron shared with me his dismay with Bulgaria’s film bureaucrats who had invited him in the early 1980s and had helped him to view all the films he needed in order to write his book. Later on, however, he felt ignored by them as, in the 1990s, they seemed to have had completely forgotten his existence and commitment to the cinema of this country. I tried to explain that governments had changed, that the new people were most likely considering everything done by their predecessors as worthy of destruction, and so on — yet, I can see very well why he was feeling so bitter. I would feel the same in his place. His death is not being reported in the Bulgarian newspapers as far as I can tell, writing this from Sofia where I am visiting at the moment.

During our encounter in Belgrade in February 2009 I kept pestering Ron with questions about his long life as a festival goer, to me he is probably the prototypical individual who I describe in my writing on the ‘Festival Circuit’ when I talk about ‘the festival treadmill’. He was a man living for an at film festivals. I very much wanted to learn, in particular, about the film festival of non-aligned nations, mostly from the Third World that the Soviet Union was trying to rally culturally, that had been taking place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (USSR), during the 1970s and the early 1980s, a festival that no longer exists but which he had visited many times. He did not manage to tell me as much as I wanted to know, and promised to talk to me about it at a later point. With Ron now gone, the feeling is that a whole era has disappeared.

It is only now, from his obituary issued by Interfilm, that I learn about Ron Holloway’s involvement with the Cuernavaca (Mexico) centre for intercultural learning, run by de-schooling ideologue Ivan Illich, another person who has had a shaping influence over my thinking over the years.

© Dina Iordanova
19 December 2009

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s visit to St. Andrews, Fall 2009

November 29, 2009 at 3:45 am

I am really happy that this project finally materialised: Jonathan Rosenbaum, the critic whom Godard compared to Bazin, spent a period working and teaching at our programme here in St. Andrews.

I have been a fan of Jonathan’s since 1996 when I lived in Chicago and first came across his writing in the free local weekly, The Chicago Reader. I since became an admirer, mostly in response to his insightful Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See, a real eye opener which exposes the deeply problematic status quo in global film distribution (even if his focus is mostly on American film, which is not one that I am interested in, really). Jonathan’s writing spans a range of topics in film, yet to me his contributions on matters related to festivals as well as his observations on the clandestine distribution matters are of most interest. Most of his oeuvre is featured at the eponymous blog.

So, when I was teaching at the University of Chicago last fall (October 2008, in the context of the Chicago euphoria preceding the US presidential election), I finally managed to get in touch with Jonathan. During lunch at the famous Medici on 57th in Hyde Park (where at the time waiters were wearing T-Shirts with a sign ‘Obama Eats Here’), I extended an invitation for him to come to St. Andrews as our visiting professor in the Fall of 2009. He since joined the international advisory board for our Dynamics of World Cinema project. Now, more than a year later, I am so happy to report that it all worked, in spite his busy schedule and writing commitments. I believe we all, faculty and postgraduate students, benefited from his presence. His lecture on Iranian cinema to undergraduate students seems to have triggered serious interest among second year students in this film tradition, as I understand they have produced numerous essays on the subject. PhD students have enter dialogue with him on a variety of matters, as one can see, for example, in this entry on Matthew Holtmeier’s blog Cinema Without Organs. Jonathan helped us with a review of the manuscript of our forthcoming Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities; he also praised William Brown’s film, En Attendant Godard, which premiered here during his visit.

Rosenbaum keeps saying he is now retired. What does this mean, however? When I introduced him for the talk he gave here on 27 October 2009, Goodbye Cinema, Hallo Cinephilia!, I could not help noticing his writing was everywhere: I had just read Richard Porton’s collection Decalog 3: On Film Festivals, where Jonathan has got a contribution; I had just browsed through recent issues of Film Quarterly, and in each one there was a contribution by Rosenbaum. And, just the previous day, I had just received a gift from him and Claudia Siefen, The Unquiet American; Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., the fabulous illustrated book published by the Austrian Film Museum in conjunction with the programme at Viennale.

I hope we are all as prolific in retirement as he is!

© Dina Iordanova
29 November 2009

Screen International: International Blockbusters

November 23, 2009 at 1:51 am

I am wondering what the magazine is actually covering by way of reviewing international films. Indeed, there are a number of articles discussing the dynamics in international and particularly Asian film industry lately. When it comes to reviewing concrete films, however, there is a strange discrepancy to be observed. There are always reviews of the American films that are at the top of the international box office, as well as of some of those from Europe. However, almost none of the Asian films that appear in the top forty (or, for that matter, even in the top ten) listings, are being reviewed. Over the past several months, for example, Screen International offered a somewhat belated yet adequate coverage on the Nordic hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a Danish-Swedish co-production, but barely any coverage on the other top-40 European films, which in most cases originate from countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Russia. One of the few box office hits from Asia to see a more detailed review was Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, the tale of the fateful dog that waited on the city train station in Shibuya for his dead ‘salaryman’-owner every day for a number of years after his dead. It is a beloved Tokyo story; the statue of the dog can be seen at this most famous intersection in the city.

However, except the brief ‘capsula’ reviews of some of these titles, endurable 2009 box office hits from Asia, such as South Korean Haeundae and Take Off, Indian Kambakkh Ishq, Kaminey, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, or the Japanese 20th Century Boys and April Brides were not written about.

The most endurable Asian presence in the global top ten box office of this past summer (2009), the Japanese baseball drama Rookies, which made nearly a hundred million from its very limited territorial distribution, was not covered either. It is interesting to note that at the time of this writing it appears there is no entry for the film at the IMDb, either. It only lists the TV series on which the film is based.

In my view, the function of the magazine which bills itself as ‘trade’ would be to serve the trade by bringing information on what is hot and what sells. If I am a distributor, I may be particularly interested in knowing more about films that made tens of millions of dollars elsewhere, as they clearly have got commercial potential. Instead, the review section of Screen International offers reviews of small festival films that are regularly assessed as lacking adequate commercial potential. On the one hand, there is information on the performance of global blockbusters but no information on the actual style/content of those. On the other hand, there are reviews of artistically worthwhile (or sometimes disappointing) films that lack in commercial potential. Ultimately, the message as I receive it, is: Only commercial cinema from the US merits coverage and attention, this is the only sphere where money can be made; the only aspect of international cinema that deserves our consideration includes arthouse and indie films with no popular appeal.

© Dina Iordanova
23 November 2009

Confession/ Povinnost (Russia, Aleksandr Sokurov, 1998): A homoerotic film of cult potential

November 27, 2008 at 1:15 am

Among the films I watched over recent days, Sokurov’s Confession/ Povinnost (1998) impressed me the most. Not so much the film itself, as I admit to not be particularly fond of films that run over 200 minutes at a slow pace. My fascination came more from the two realizations which I made while seeing it, and immediately thereafter. First, Confession (more accurately translated as Service of Duty) is one of the most intensely homoerotc films I have ever seen, yet it does not seem to be a film that is recognized in the context of gay cinema. Secondly, the few reviews of the film downplay the intense homoeroticism or interpret it as a minor feature while foregrounding other aspects, thus raising questions about the underlying reasons of such critical myopia.

The first dimension: Homoerotic motives, have been present in Sokurov’s work from early on, at least since the feature Dni zatmeniya/ Days of Eclipse (1988, pictured) and the five-hour long documentary Spiritual Voices/Dukhovnie golosa (1995), both films evolving around Caucasian and Asian men cast away in some remote Asian locations, Turkmenistan in the first case and Afghanistan in the second. In Confession, which is set on a military ship in Russia’s far north, nothing much happens by way of action. There is a voice-over which reads excerpts from the ship captain’s diary, passages that are not directly linked to what one sees on screen, mostly evolving around matters of commitment, dedication, or endurance. In contrast to the voice-over, the visuals of this meditative film mostly consist of gentle and yet unrelentless scrutiny of the semi-naked bodies of the sailors. The camera endlessly dances around their daily routines on board in Murmansk. In most instances the young men are shown sleeping, scrubbing floors, sorting out their clothes or beds. Usually, they are naked from the waste up, but they occasionally wear horizontally striped T-shirts, as if having come out from a gay comic strip. Their bodies are lean rather than muscular, and nothing explicitly sexual is taking place. Yet, the innuendo is so intense that the constant mutual avoidance of bodies makes the attraction much more convincing than one could have achieved though the display of actual sexual acts.

What is more curious to me is the second aspect, which concerns the critical reviews of the film. In the overall, the reviews that I was able to find, generally evade discussing the homoeroticism of Confession (while I believe this to be the uniquely defining feature of the film). True, reviewers cannot help it but mentioning this aspect, but they usually do it only in passing. The reviewer at PopMatters, for example, talks about ‘suppressed desires’ and is quick to veer away from discussing this aspect of the film by warning that ‘Sokurov has repeatedly warned against any homoerotic interpretation of his films, but speculation remains as to whether such conviction is a necessary concession to a homophobic Russian public.’ He opts to honor the warning of the director and interprets the film in the categories of despair, monotony and oppression (all these supposedly being inherent features of military life — something I would tend to agree with). The reviewer at The Village Voice describes the film as a ‘fictionalized meditation on life aboard an Arctic naval ship, pensively decked out with some of the oddest visions of edge-of-the-map industrialization ever captured’. The reviewer in The Chicago Reader sees it as an exploration of ‘the way human consciousness can become a prison, walling off the self from visual, emotional, or physical contact’. Most reviews declare the film profoundly Russian in its concerns and representation, some mention the references to Chekhov made during a conversation between the Commander and his friend. Yes, all these aspects could be found in the film if one watches it carefully. Yet if one engages in such careful and patient viewing, it would be impossible to not be overwhelmed by the intense homo-eroticism which dominates nearly every shot. There is a deep gap between the voice-over commentary in this film and the imagery. The pensive voice-over commentary based on the Commander’s philosophical diary is in such a drastic contrast with the image on the screen that one could not possibly overlook it.

Had this film been made in Soviet times, I am sure it would have been interpreted along the lines of censorship and the director would have been praised for using smart smokescreen techniques that attach a benign text to a radically subversive imagery. Well, we are now well beyond the times of Soviet censorship, and critics have had to abandon the interpretative tools that the regime’s censorship practices was supplying them with. But then, why would one avoid naming the things one sees on screen, and acknowledging the divergence between commentary and visual representation? Isn’t it more a matter of which one of our (apparently split) critical abilities we would choose to follow — one’s instinct, linked more to what is on display to see and experience through the eyes, or one’s mind trusting mostly what one hears in the commentary, in the spoken or written word. The second, verbal dimension of the film, is rational and meditative, and invited for a Brechtian distant-type reception (and this was the way critics have apparently felt they would or should interpret the film). But then, the first aspect is so overwhelmingly present and yet so unrelated to the verbal commentary (clearly an intentional effect), that the disparity becomes drastic at moments. If I trusted my eyes, this was a film that was speaking of desire and physical attraction, and doing it so powerfully through the use of visuals that everything else just came across as a mockery. The series of images of the film were erotic art of high order, with skinny Russian sailors putting their precious bodies on display — snuggling in their bunk beds, fidgeting with gadgets, looking at books, discussing if they should sleep naked or on their clothes. The monotony was just another opportunity to revisit the view of someone’s torso. The despair, the repetitiveness of military life — an excuse to linger around and gaze more at these amazingly beautiful male species. Why is it that the critics had rejected it to pick up on the discrepancy between the two possible aspects of interpreting the film, when, I believe, it was simply shouting out at the viewer? Not that they would not have seen it. I wonder if this is not more about the way in which one canonizes the interpretation of certain auteurs. Bergman, Tarkovsky, Sokurov…

I see a short piece on the matter of the gay dimension in Sokurov’s work at CinePassion, but the writer only mentions other films and mostly focuses on Father and Son (2003) (pictured). If he were to see Confession, much of his uncertainty would be dispelled.

The two DVD-set containing all five parts of the film has been released by Facets in the US, but it is in fact an import from France, and it is therefore produced to much higher standards than the usual Facets fare. The film is subtitled in all major European languages. The second DVD contains an interesting digital booklet which one can read through the computer and which provides background to the director and the film, once again avoiding the gay theme altogether.

© Dina Iordanova
25 November 2008

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