Film that created the most wealth?

October 30, 2008 at 12:27 am

Writing in Financial Times, on 16 May 2008, John Authers reported on the Film that Crated the Most Wealth. According to Nobel Prize in economics winner Prof. Robert Mundell (pictured here receiving his award from from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in 1999), this is supposed to be Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

According to Mundell:

” Taxi Driver is the most important movie ever made from the standpoint of creating GDP. It’s the movie that made the Reagan revolution possible. That movie was indirectly responsible for adding between $5trn and $15trn of output to the US economy.”

How did it do it? Reporting from the annual gathering of the CFA Institute of chartered financial analysts in Vancouver, Authers describes the line of thought that Mundell follows in making this claim.

John Hinckley, the deranged would-be assassin who attempted to kill US president Ronald Reagan in 1981, claimed that he was inspired by it. He said that his action was an attempt to impress Foster. (The movie features a scene in which a mohawked De Niro attempts to assassinate a politician.) According to Mundell, the wave of sympathy for Reagan that was engendered by the assassination attempt deterred Democrats in Congress from voting against his proposed tax cuts. Because of this accident of history, the US administered a big fiscal stimulus at the same time that Paul Volcker at the Federal Reserve was administering tight money. This, for Mundell, was vital in creating the era of prosperity that followed.

I wish I had been in attendance in order to find out more on the cognitive method that underlines this line of reasoning. On the one hand, it sounds like a fascinating deduction (or maybe induction?), and it is constructed so neatly that it could be turned to a movie. It has certainly impressed me sufficiently to make me keep Authers’ articles on file for months until I got the chance to come round and write on it today. On the other hand, I wonder how stable are the assumptions on which the argument is based? Don’t we tell students in our teaching that most of the studies on influencing through the media have shown that there is no conclusive evidence that someone can be influenced one way or another by the novies? Haven’t barristers fought over the years against the use of such presumptive judgment on the actions of their clients in court? I remember a controversy involving a ban on The Godfather in some country, as it had allegedly inspired a mafia-style assassination; the move triggered serious objections that argued no direct causation between the workings of the criminal mind and the cinematic narrative to which it has been exposed could ever be established with full certainty. Why is it then that an even more daring construction like this one (involving a number of assumptions related to the film, the killer, the victim, the sympathy, the Congress, and at the end the tax policy and wealth) would be acceptable and newsworthy?

Prof. Mundell is a top league economist and I am sure he has got much better evidence on how things have evolved back in the 1980s regarding tax policies and wealth accumulation. But I admit feeling somewhat uneasy seeing an increasing number of writing from economists who use material from the realms of popular culture in a way in which they would not use material from within their own disciplines. In the area of economy of culture there is a Tyler Cowen, who has made a name for himself with statements that appear knowledgeable but are often fairly speculative. Most of all, however, I experience these doubts and unease when reading the witty but ultimately contrived arguments offered by writers such as Tim Hartford in the UK and Steven Levitt in the USA.

© Dina Iordanova
30 October 2008

Le Balzac, rue Balzac, 8 eme, Paris

October 28, 2008 at 12:11 am

Unlike Le Barbizon, on which I wrote last week, Le Balzac is one of the Pairsian cinemas that is truly thriving, and apparently it has been in this great shape for a number of years now. My visit here happened on a chilly Sunday morning, 25 May 2008, when I crossed the wide sidewalks of Champs Elysees, two blocks down from the l’Arc de Triomphe where, turning into this quiet side street, I attended the matinee screening of Ted Wilde’s The Kid Brother (1927), a classical burlesque with Harold Lloyd, which came with live piano accompaniment by young and highly proficient Japanese female pianist, Eri Koazki. Precisely as I had heard would be likely, the theatre owner and chief programmer, Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky was already up, present in the foyer to welcome viewers and chat to members of the audience that he evidently knew from previous visits. The whole ambiance — the deep red carpets, the comfortable seats, the clean curves of the room, the glimmer from the modern art-deco light fixtures — created a special atmosphere of cozy sumptuousness. The guests who had brought their children (or grandchildren) to see the film were dressed in a way that would make me categorize them as inhabitants of 1st or 16th arrondissements, or as what the popular imagination would probably describe as ‘true Parisians’. Even thought the cinema was just steps off the beaten tourist track with the MacDonalds and other fast food restaurants that litter the vicinity, there was nothing of the commercial atmosphere that reigns over most of otherwise beautiful Champs Elysees. It was a space truly dedicated to the Seventh art.

Le Balzac, which has been owned by the Schpoliansky family throughout its existence, first opened in 1935 with a screening of King Vidor’s film The Wedding Night, starring Gray Cooper. Soon the venue became an established site for pre-war Hollywood films screened in original English-language version (foreign-language films are still traditionally dubbed in France). In a patriotic move after WWII, it re-focused its programming mostly on French cinema, and hosted, over the years, the a great variety of galas and events take place here; its web-site features photographs of memorable visitors, from Bourvil and Brigitte Bardot to Fanny Ardant and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, or from the opening of the decadent La piscine (1969), with stars Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in attendance. The cinema’s architecture is a modern art deco style, with soft curvy lines and a rounded main screening room; a naval theme is present in the foyer and the main hall. Two smaller screening rooms were added in 1975, which allowed for a more diversified programming, for the inclusion of a diverse selection of international cinema, and for a longer run of the various titles (many cinemas in Paris still change the programming every two or three days). Further renovations took place in 1993, introducing new lights, seats, carpet, wall coverings in leather in the corridors — all still impeccably maintained and giving the secure feeling of high quality and relaxing luxury, a feature that is not present in cinema halls as often.

Every week there at least two events take place: special screenings with live music or guests. Partnered with two nearby theatres, L’Athenee and Rond-Point, Le Balzac often turns into a theatre and concert venue as well. In most cases, the music comes as musicians provide accompaniment to screenings of older films, featuring the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Another initiative are the music-accompanied screenings of short films, usually presented by Benoît Basirico, founder of the film music web-site cinezik.fr. A forthcoming matinee with musical accompaniment will feature a screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s depression-era melodrama An Inn in Tokyo (1935), yet another event organised under the leadership of Jean-François Zygel, a long-standing collaborator. There is a lot more going on here given the limitations of space: photographic exhibitions in the foyer next to the bar which also features DVDs for sale, screenings of shorts and special seances for the members of the cinema’s club, screenings for children on the weekends. Le Balzac also has a remarkable web-site, packed with information on current films and events, a Blog, an e-mail newsletter, and a database of past screenings which allows to search through historical information on what played here in the past.

Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky, pictured distributing publicity leaflets on the street in front of the cinema, has spent most of his adult life around the cinema. Born toward the end of WWII, in 1944, he first worked for the mainstream chain UGC in the 1960s, and took his first forays into programming in 1968 at specialised University cinemas in Rouen, Lille et Grenoble. He also worked as an assisant director for René Clément and for Luis Bunuel (on his Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972). His life became intricately connected to Le Balzac after his father’s death, in 1973, when he took over the family business started by his grandfather nearly 40 years earlier. And he has been at it for more than 35 years now. His first ambitious project was to add two smaller screening spaces alongside the main 400-place hall, thus turning the cinema into a small multiplex more suited for the modern age. After completing all these extensive renovation and moderinsation works, his attention since 1986 has mostly been on developing and maintaining a top scale programme of screenings and events, on cultivating a dedicated audience, and on bulding bridges between cinema and other forms of artistic expression like music or photography.

Since the 1980s, the cinemas around Champs-Elysées have been closing one after another, usually for reasons of rising rental costs in the area where rents are now affordable only for the likes of Louis Vuitton (flagship store on the avenue pictured here). Writing on the Blog in 2007, Schpoliansky laments the recent closure of UGC Champs-Elysées (In the 1990s I saw here Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, screening here long before the works of Studio Ghibli had become known in the English speaking world). He writes:

” J’en suis bien triste. Et pas seulement parce que c’est mon grand-père qui a ouvert ce cinéma en 1939 (le Triomphe est resté dans ma famille jusqu’en 1971). Je suis triste parce qu’un cinéma qui ferme, c’est toujours une mauvaise (et irréversible) nouvelle, en particulier sur les Champs-Elysées où il devient si difficile de vendre autre chose que des chaussures de sport et des hamburgers. Certes, il reste encore 36 écrans sur l’avenue, ce qui continue d’assurer au public une certaine variété dans les films programmés et confère malgré tout au quartier une place de choix dans la vie cinématographique parisienne. Les choses cependant ne vont pas dans le bon sens et il est temps de tirer la sonnette d’alarme pour que cesse l’hémorragie !’

It is indeed troublesome to hear that the number of screens in the vicinity of this lively part of Paris is down about 50%, to 36. (But I recently read that the number of cinemas for the whole of Romania nowadays is down to 38, an issue I will address in another post.) The most troublesome, however, is this overwhelming feeling that one looks at a disappearing world, that one encounters people who belong to a kind that will soon no longer be around. The web-site of the cinema, for example, describes Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky as one of the last surviving independent theatre owners on the right bank, a man who proves on a daily basis that it is possible to keep the curiosity of viewers alive and well. I admit to be troubled by this tone of lament and passing, as would like to hope that the survival of cinematic art is not a matter of a bunch of dedicated mavericks that feel they are likely to be extinct soon. I hope to see this defeatist attitude to be proven wrong by history. But who knows, really?

1 rue Balzac
Paris 75008
01 45 61 10 60
Metro: Georges V

© Dina Iordanova
28 October 2008

Haiducii/The Outlaws (Romania, 1966, Dinu Cocea)

October 26, 2008 at 12:33 am

The Outlaws, a great example of the adventure-cum-history films that were produced in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, was directed by Dinu Cocea (b. 1929), a director most of whose work is in the lighter genres and who has to his credit some of the most popular titles of Romanian cinema, such as Parasutisti/ The Paratroopers (1972) and the films about legendary outlaw Iancu Jianu from the early 1980s. The Outlaws was 37 year-old Cocea’s truly assured directorial debut, soon thereafter followed by a second installment called Razbunarea haiducilor/ The Revenge of the Outlaws (1968), the poster of which is pictured here.

The film is set during the 18th century in the mountains of Wallachia (a.k.a. Ţara Românească), a province located to the south of the Carpathians, which was part of the Ottoman empire. At the time it was effectively ruled by Greek Phanariots installed by Istanbul to take charge of the empire’s Christian millet (province). The outlaws that acted during this period would usually aim to undermine the rule of the Phanariots and the Ottomans, and this is one of the main motivations behind the actions of the film’s protagonists. But there are also complex inter-personal relations at play.

The story evolves around two stepbrothers, Sarbu and Amza, who are leaders of a band of outlalws. Sarbu, a treacherous and violent person (played by Romanian megastar Amza Pellea, 1931-1983), betrays his brother and sells him off to the Ottoman authorities who come to hunt him in the inn where he has just spent the night with his lover. Amza, the good brother, is brandmarked and then put in a cage and left hanging between the walls of a huge cave. Sarbu violates his woman (a feisty inn-keeper played by Magda Barbu), and then ventures on to a series of outrageous deeds, which involve, among other things, marrying the Phanariot ruler’s daughter and then rudely manipulating and blackmailing her family over money due to the Turkish sultan that they have tried to appropriate. The story, which involves simple-hearted Romanians, treacherous Greek Phanariots, and aloof Ottoman Turks soon turns into a story of revenge, after Amza is freed from his cave imprisonment and comes back to institute a spectacular vengeance over Sarbu.

Here s the only clip from the film I was able to find. Alas, it has got no subtitles. It refers to the moment when Amza’s outlaw friends manage to charm and fool the local Christian monks, a move that allows them to get access to the cave where their friend is imprisoned and manage his bold release.

The film is edited on a fast pace, the characterisation is convincing; all in all it makes for an excellent example for the achievements that East European cinemas had in these genres (see my discussion of another representative of these films, Estonian Viimne Reliikvia). The copy which I watched was black and white, so all I could do was to imagine what it would look like in color, especially as the photography proficiently focused on dynamically-staged fight scenes interspersed between spectacular and breathtaking mountain views. The film is influenced by some of the Polish historical epics of the early 1960s, but also by swashbuckler extravaganzas like Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) as well as by spaghetti Westerns (most clearly seen in the pub and shoot out scenes at the beginning of the film).

The spectacular death of Sabru is interestingly staged: he is hanged on a church bell and his body keeps bouncing up and down for a while. This same set-up is seen in several of the films of Emir Kusturica, most notably in Time of the Gypsies and in Underground (where Marko’s brother commits suicide this way). The Outlaws was most likely distributed in Yugoslavia, and it is quite possible that it informed Kusturica’s artistic vision, as the director is known to frequently re-stage visual tropes from other films in his own works (see my 2002 monograph Emir Kusturica for a more extended discussion on this matter).

I was able to see this film due to the friendly assistance of Marian Tutui from the Romanian National Film Centre of which I am truly grateful.

© Dina Iordanova
26 October 2008

Le Barbizon, rue Tolbiac, 13eme, Paris

October 23, 2008 at 3:39 pm

This is one of the Parisian cinemas on which I want to write, but it is not one where I have seen a film as it is closed and represents a sad picture at the moment. I came across the bricked-up facade of the Barbizon, as shown on the picture, in April 2008 while passing by. My Parisian apartment was located nearby, next to the beautifully maintained garden Moulin de la Pointe near the Maison Blanche metro station. Le Barbizon was just a block or two off L’Avenue d’Italie, on Tolbiac, and next door to an intriguing bookshop which featured predominantly leftist literature (in this particular year mostly dedicated to commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Mai 1968), called Librairie Jonas. Just down Tolbiac, one hits the Asian area, with some of the best Vietnamese places to eat in Paris within steps, full of people waiting on the sidewalk to get a table and start sampling the savory beef soup with mint, sprouts, and fish sauce. A few blocs down Tolbiac are the University dorms, and the highrise area of Les Olympiades, populated mostly by East Asians.

In a city that as well maintained as Paris where you would almost never come across architectural blunders or neglected areas (at least not within the peripherique), it was certainly strange to witness the existence of an eyesore like Le Barbizon, an off-putting impression that came along with the intriguing feeling that this bricked-up facade hides some stories to tell. The place looked more like the abandoned inner city film theaters I have seen at various places in America, bearing disturbing signs of neglect that did not sit well in its surroundings, with the nearby stations for the trendy Velib (the rental city bikes that were recently introduced) and coquettish boulangeries. So I got curious enough to want to learn more about the place. Later in May and June there were various posters around the site, announcing events that all sounded militant in nature (I could not get to any of these); all were being held in the vicinity but none seemed to be scheduled in the cinema hall itself, the space of Le Barbizon seemed to be completely off limits and the brick wall that locked the front facade off was evidently not easy to get beyond.

My subsequent research allowed me to learn that the cinema had first opened doors in 1911, in mid-May of that year under the title « Le Cinématographe des familles» and was re-named to Le Barbizon in the 1950s (after the name of the artistic community based in the namesake village near the Fontainebleau forest). It had functioned continuously until 1983, featuring about 550 places and becoming the longest uninterrupted working cinema hall in Paris. It was a single auditorium with a balcony and a lobby. Renovated in the 70s, it mostly specialized on running karate and kung fu movies and other Hong Kong imports, particularly welcomed by the population in the Chinese district. In the early 1980s, however, it was apparently neglected and the venue closed around 1982 or 1983. Reportedly, the owner left for Hong Kong and was reluctant to be contacted; numerous attempts to reopen the place failed because of this uncertain absentee situation. Two decades later, the cinema was neither demolished nor reopened.

In 2002, a local cultural organization that seems to have come into existence mostly in order to revive Le Barbizon, “Les Amis de Tolbiac”, claimed the space and begun staging a program of activities driven by ideas of spontaneous civic participation, creativity and citizenship. Clearly, the intention had been to turn Le Barbizon into a site for encounters between alternative and independent artists, often featuring international or minority cultures and points of view, with the aim to regenerate the cultural life of the neighborhood. Aiming to encourage experimental and independent cinema events, ‘Les Amis de Tolbiac’ organised events featuring Bolivian cinema, experimental films (C215), and other screenings of this type, aiming to reflect the diversity of contemporary French society, a fact of life that is clearly felt in the area surrounding the cinema’s location.

The wall that has put an end to all this was built under the direct supervision of the Parisian police on 18 October 2006. (The photograph shows builders who are erecting a brick wall under supervision from the police on that day.) I am not really able to grasp the full context that has led to this strange act. The sources I had access to suggest that the mural that seals off Le Barbizon was erected as part of the preparation for the forthcoming presidential elections (if this is true, it is clearly a politically motivated move against the leftist activist groups that congregated there). In any case, the action has been taken under the pretext of an existing 2003 decision to evict the ‘art squatters’ from the premises which they had occupied without legitimate permission (as the owners who could allow the usage of the place were absent). As the authorities had waited for three years before moving on enforcing the eviction order, “The Friends of Tolbiac” do have some point in noting the proximity of the the enforcement action to the presidential election date. The web-site Imaginary Parisian posts information of a letter by Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë which seems to regret the action and promises that it will be reversed (no evidence of such reversal for now, as far as I can tell). Even The Guardian covered the showdown in an article by Angelique Chrisafis, entitled The Battle of Paris.

This is the poster that I saw on that day in April 2008 displayed on the window of Libraire Jonas. It shows the police guarding the newly built wall at the Barbizon, a worrisome photograph that alerted me about the story linked to this absurd wall.

The French cinephile web-site Silver Screens laments the loss of cinemas across the 13th arrondissement and gives background to the Barbizon as a former celebrated site of multiculturalism. One of the oldest cinema halls in Paris, the future is more than uncertain. To keep the sense of urgency alive, a festival of eco cinema, called Cinecolo, took place in the vicinity in the Fall of 2007; it recently had its second edition in October 2008.

Le Barbizon is not the only cinema in Paris that has closed doors (even though I cannot think of any other one that would sport a brick wall built in front of it). There are several Parisian organisations engaged with protesting the closure of other theatres, most notably and noisily the Grand Ecran Italie, also in the 13th not far from the Barbizon, see their postings at Let’s Save The Grand Screen. Le Barbizon is also featured on the site which highlights some of themost cherished cinema theaters in Paris. To contact the organisation that is behind the efforts to re-openLe Barbizon, write to amisdetolbiac@lebarbizon.org. Best of all, go and check the place out.

Le Barbizon
Paris, France
141 Rue de Tolbiac
Paris 75013 France
M: Tolbiac, Maison Blanche, Les Olympiades

© Dina Iordanova
23 October 2008

We Drank the Same Water/ Nous avons bu la même eau (2008), a film tracing the Armenian presence in today’s Turkey by Serge Avédikian

October 9, 2008 at 3:28 am

The documentary Nous avons bu la même eau/We Drunk the Same Water premiered in Paris in May 2008, and had several weeks of continuous run in two early evening slots in Espace Saint-Michel, one of many tiny but well attended art house cinemas (cinema d’art et essay) in the area between the Sorbonne and the Seine. I saw it on one of the fist nights, alongside members of the Armenian community in Paris; the screening was introduced by director Serge Avédikian, a French-Armenian actor and theatre personality (see his web-site), who had also organised discussion with some historians after the screening (I could not attend it).

The director has first taken the opportunity to visit Soloz, the place from where his Armenian ancestors originate, in 1987, while attending a theatre festival in Istanbul. The film features footage of this first visit. The town, located on the south side of Marmara sea about 170 km south of Istanbul, is now populated by ethnic Turks whose families settled there in the 1920s as part of the large-scale ‘population exchanges’ of the period after they have been displaced from their habitual areas of residence near Thessaloniki in today’s Greece. Avedikian’s Armenian grandfather, Avédis, and his family, lived in Soloz early in the 20th century until the time when, threatened by famine, destitution and destruction, they were driven away from the territory of modern-day Turkey. In yet another installment of the effort to bring hushed histories from the region to the limelight, we see the director uncovering traces of ancient Armenian presence: it does not take long to find tombstones that are now used as steps; the foundations of the old church are still in place.

Most part of the film evolves around the director’s second visit to Soloz in 2006. Some of the people he had met during the first visit who still live here; both him and they have aged, a realisation that makes them feel closer to each other. Like before, some of them treat him with suspicion, while others welcome him with open hearts and minds. More people are willing to talk and show him the remnants of Armenian presence that are scattered all over the place. A man uses one of the Armenian stones to press his olives at home. Others take him to a nearby field where more relics are unearthed below the grass. In exchange, he shows them old pale pictures of his family who once lived here.

The most interesting aspect of the film is Avedikian’s interaction with the local men. Rather than generalising, he makes an effort to be fair in revealing the variety of individual reactions he is getting from different people: while the town’s mayor treats him with suspicion on both visits, the local doctor is truly supportive; while some close their doors to him, others welcome him to their homes; while some refuse to talk others are willing to engage in lengthy conversations about the rights and wrongs of history.

Things, however, take a turn for the worse when Avédikian decides to quiz the locals on their knowledge on the Armenian genocide. As one is usually the case in these regions (where adverse facts of history are relegated to oblivion and whre controversy-causing claims are hushed away and not made known to local people as a matter of principle), most of the interviewees react by saying that this is the first time they hear of such a thing; if it happened, they say, it was probably the responsibility of singular individuals and those responsible were probably punished (only in one case the discussion goes in more detail with references to concrete names and historical personalities). The locals clearly distance themselves from the allegations and make an important point to Avedikian: you see, we are not different from yourself; your family has been driven away and has ended up in France, and, likewise, our families have been uprooted from where they used to live and have resettles, ending up here. Both your and our people have all suffered in the course of these forced migrations; and indeed, we drunk the same water. But one cannot hold us responsible for what happened to the people who lived here before, our ancestors came to these places only after the previous inhabitants were no longer here; they never even met face to face.

It is in this part of the film where Avedikian gets to walk the tightrope of a tricky proposition that will ultimately prove untenable. It is one thing to unravel the traces left of one’s ancestors, and the director is really successful at this, winning over the locals and making them re-live the past with him. As the men from Soloz are themselves descendants of displaced ancestors, they are capable to understand and willing to identify with his quest. But when he starts pushing it further, it is clearly not working (and there is no chance that it would work). It is not them who are responsible for what happened to the Armenians who lived here; it may be a relief for Avedikian to be able to share his historical grievances, but where such move comes along with an expectation that contemporary Turks would volunteer to share into this guilt it is a dead end street.

It is the same all over the Balkans, a region that is full of grievances of this type that almost each ethnic group makes against others in relation to one period or another: in order to reconcile and overcome the wounds of the past people often are expected to take a stance against their own, a move that is not easy to make and that most of them are not really ready for just yet.

© Dina Iordanova
9 October 2008

And End of an Era? Popular cinema, Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is Good!’ and the collapse of Wall Street

October 7, 2008 at 6:51 am

Twenty-one years on, Gordon Gekko, the stockbroker that preached ‘Greed is good!’ in this famous speech from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), is topical again.

This time around he pops up in The New York Times columnists Tim Arango and Julie Creswell’s article entitled Goodbye to All That: The Wall St. Lifestyle (October 5, 2008) in which they cover what they have wishfully termed an ‘end of an era’. The article abounds with stories of the lifestyle of excess and exclusivity, illustrated with pictures of pop culture financial abuse legends such as Michael Milken and Ivan O. Boesky, linked to the crash of 1987. Most of all, however, the authors are trying to make references to today’s situation. As the more recent names to name and pictures to come along for those leading the financial extravananza are still not really ‘short-listed’ as of yet, there is a photograph of a fleet of glossy black S-Class Mercedeses parked in front of the Lehman Brothers building on the day of their noisy bankruptcy a few weeks ago (there was an article in the Financial Times on 4 October 2008, on the art collection of Lehman Brothers’ Richard Flud and his wive, which is to fetch millions in a forthcoming sale at Sotheby’s). The main question that Arango and Creswell asked in their article is: in what ways the demise of Wall Street will trickle down into popular culture.

I am also interested in this question. The authors quote from an interview with Oliver Stone, the morality guru, who apparently has been clear about the true essence of Gordon Gekkos throughout. The illumination of the deeply criminal nature of the Wall Street ethos apparently has come to him long before he made the film, in the context of researching for his script for Brian de Palma’s Scarface in Miami in the early 1980s. ‘What shocked me,’ Stone reiterates, ‘was I met with all these guys who at a young age were making millions and they were acting like these guys in Miami […] There’s not much difference between Gordon Gekko and Tony Montana.’

While I write this, my TV is on, it is morning here in Chicago. CNN just showed Obama saying that the current financial crisis is due to the years of greed that has ruled America (this was almost literally repeated in another clip they played immediately thereafter, featuring McCain). It is an interesting moment to realise to what extent articulations that have first come about in the context of popular culture, in films such as Wall Street and The Bonfire of Vanities, now reemerge to define our understanding of the modern age.

These days I am staying on campus at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The waitresses in the nearby Medici cafe wear T-Shirts that say ‘Obama eats here’, and the shops in the vicinity offer Obama merchandise; his house is not far. The TV brings in more and more of gloomy financial news, banks and markets continue collapsing on both sides of the Atlantic (it seems it is RBS’s turn today, 39% further down from the bottom it had hit yesterday). Yet at the same time it is all very relaxed: there is central air conditioning where I am staying. I am the only person staying on this floor with eleven guest rooms and yet the AC keeps working on full speed and it cannot be controlled or stopped. It is October, for God’s sake, it is not really necessary to use up so much energy to cool down an empty place, right? On the street polite and cheerful campaigners are asking you to ‘save the planet’ by separating your rubbish for recycling. It all gives me an interesting feel of a smooth descent into a post-financial apocalypse.

© Dina Iordanova
7 October 2008

Multiethnic urban margin in European and international cinema

October 1, 2008 at 9:52 pm

The dynamic forces of global economy brought new diversity to the urban margins of Europe. It is a process that has been analyzed by anthropologists (Hannerz 1996) and sociologists (Sassen 1998), and has been represented in films since the mid-1990s, cinematic texts that show the interactions of marginalized ethnic personages and members of the disenfranchised classes at the periphery of the global metropolis. The best-known film that explores thus type of interactions is Mathieu Kassovitz’s suburban classic tale of mixed-race delinquency La Haine/Hate (France, 1995) ‘a text that underlines both the mobility of culture (Black, Jew, and Moroccan) yet is placed within a terrifyingly violent, segregated and ‘immobile’ location’ (Dasgupta, 2002), thus underscoring what Morley has termed ‘incarceration in the banlieues’ (2000: 159). A powerful continuation of this type of film is the multiple award-winning L’Esquive (2003) of Abdellatif Kechiche (pictured), released in English with the decisively off-putting title Games of Love and Chance.

Many more films, however, belong to the category of the ‘multicultural urban margin,’ created by the dynamic forces of global economy, with settings ranging from New York to Perth in Australia to Vancouver in Canada. I have argued, in a forthcoming piece, that the critical mass of these films is sufficient to allow us talk of a new European film genre.*

Films of this kind have often been set in the multicultural neighborhoods of large American cities, like New York. Tony Gerber’s Side Streets (1998), for example, is one of these multicultural urban periphery texts, set on the background of Manhattan’s skyline but taking place in an ethnic enclave not monopolised by one particular group but rather housing a mixture of immigrants, all featured here speaking their respective languages, eating their respective foodstuffs, and observing their respective traditions. The protagonists include the Puerto Ricans Ramon and Marisol cooking mondongo (tripe stew), a young Romanian woman, and an ageing Bollywood actor and his extended Indian family. Another good example of the ‘genre’ is Goran Paskaljevic’s Tudja Amerika/Someone Else’s America (France/UK/Germany/Greece 1995). Also set in the multiethnic enclaves of New York, the films tells a story of a Montenegrin immigrant who marries a Chinese-American girl in a wedding celebration during which they all dance flamenco under the accompaniment of a Basque friend.

Things look pretty much the same in films set in the French capital. In Fureur/Rage (France, Karim Dridi, 2003), a love and passion story set in the Parisian Chinatown, a Spaniard falls in love with a Chinese girl. Another recent Paris-set production (One Dollar Curry, Vijay Singh, 2004) focused on a Sikh protagonist interacting with a street-wise Jamaican and with Russian prostitutes. ‘I wanted to show a part of the city that has never been shown before,’ the director said in an interview. ‘It may have the Eiffel Tower in the background but the touristy face of Paris is far away from the daily life of the protagonists who are more engulfed in the political context of Jean Marie Le Pen’ (to Gentleman, 2003: 12).

Within European cinema this urban marginal diversity is reflected into a specific range of films featuring diverse groups of young first generation immigrants (see Spagnioletti 2000). These films are often set in cities still struggling to come to terms with their newly found multiculturalism, like Vienna (as in Barbara Albert’s Austrian Nordrand/ Northern Skirts, 1999) or Altona in Germany (as in Fatih Akin’s German Kurz und schmerzlos/Short Sharp Shock, 1998). Erik Poppe’s Norwegian production Schpaa (1998) featured the interactions between marginalized immigrants from Yugoslavia and Pakistan in the drug dealing underground of Oslo; the Copenhagen settings of Nicolas Winding Refn Danish films Pusher (1996) and Pusher 2 (2004) are equally multicultural. Dino Tsintsadse’s German-made Lost Killers (2000) shows the provincial city of Mannheim as home of a diverse group of illegal immigrants all involved in the black underground economies: Croat Branko is a drug dealer, Georgian Merab is a hitman, Haitian Carlos wants to reach Australia by getting involved in organ trafficking, and the Vietnamese Lan walks the streets. Constantine Giannaris’ Apo tin akri tis polis/From the Edge of the City (Greece, 1998) revealed the multicultural ghetto side of Athens. Similar representations of urban life abound in French cinema: Marseille, for example, is depicted as a typical multiculturally marginal metropolis not only in the films of Robert Guedigian but also in a number of ‘beur’ films such as Bye-Bye (Karim Dridi, 1995, France/Switzerland/Belgium), Loin/Far Away (2001, André Téchiné), and in Père/Father (Algeria, Naguel M. Belouad, 2004).

Urban centres located elsewhere are not very different, either. In the Wellington-set Broken English (New Zealand, Gregor Nicholas 1996) a young Croatian immigrant falls in love with a native Maori man while secretly marrying an illegal Chinese man to help him immigrate, a set-up seen in a range of other films from Australia or New Zealand. It expands as far as Japan: The protagonist of Miike Takashi’s Tokyo-set Hyôryuu-gai/ City of Lost Souls (Japan, 2000) is a diasporic Japanese-Brazilian who has returned to Japan from his native Rio de Janeiro. His current girlfriend is a Chinese immigrant while his former one is Portuguese. The action evolves in neighbourhoods dominated by mixed ethnicities: A Russian human trafficker keeps an office in an area populated by an international crowd of fair-haired prostitutes working the streets in Tokyo. Besides Japanese and Cantonese, Mandarin and English, a substantial portion of the dialogue is delivered in Portuguese and Russian.

Many of the protagonists in the films of the multicultural urban margin are new migrants flocking in from various distant parts of the former Soviet Empire; they cross paths and forge alliances with other migrants whose itineraries to Europe have originated somewhere in the Third World. Having found themselves together in the global city, these dispossessed newcomers encounter older migrants who have been there for decades and who know their ways, yet are still equally marginal and dispossessed. Most of the exchanges do not gravitate toward a cathartic breakthrough, but evolve as a monotonous sideline. But the very encounter help the protagonists of either group to come to terms with their own social exclusion. Rather than ending up in bitter disillusionment, these newly forged alliances allow them to interrelate and bond in comforting and mutually empowering ways.


References
:

Dasgupta, Sudeep, University of Amsterdam, Personal correspondence, March 2002.
Gentleman, Amelia, ‘Bollywood on the Seine.’ The Guardian, November 7, 2003, Friday Review, p. 12/13.
Hannerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places, London: Routledge, 1996.
Morley, David, Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity, London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Sassen, Saskia. Globalization and its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money, 1998.
Spagnoletti, Giovanni (ed.) Il cinema Europeo del metissage. Peasro: XXXVI Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema, 2000.

* See Iordanova, Dina. ‘Migration and Cinematic Process in Post-Cold War Europe,’ in Berghahn, Daniela and Claudia Sternberg (eds.) Migrant Cinema in Europe, London: Wallflower Press, 2009.

© Dina Iordanova
2 October 2008