Film Criticism in Cyberspace, the Web

In recent years, the Internet has become more than merely a source of endless porn and spam hawking cheap Viagra and shady real-estate deals. Coverage of the arts–and film in particular–is thriving in cyberspace, and while web- based criticism will probably not supplant the print equivalent in the near future, cinephiles no longer make patronizing remarks concerning the resources available to intrepid surfers.
Bill Krohn, the Los Angeles correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma who occasionally cites Internet criticism in his reviews, in fact asserts that he “doesn’t see any difference between Internet sources and scholarly journals, except that Internet sources are more varied and frequently better.” Although it is certainly true that a plethora of misinformation is available on line (and even that enormously useful resource, the Internet Movie Database, includes its share of egregious errors), the same could be said for a surprising number of seemingly respectable film books, even those available from distinguished university presses. Nevertheless, the most reputable Internet film journals rival, and do indeed sometimes put to shame, the offerings available to erudite film buffs in print form. For example, the Australian webzine Senses of Cinema has in recent years featured impressive symposia on the relationship of film and media to the events of 9/11 and women’s cinema. In a feature entitled “Permanent Ghosts,” Senses also dissected a new form of cinephilia among young film buffs engendered by the advent of video, digital media and the age of the Internet. Otrocampo, a lively Argentinean Net ‘zine, provides extremely comprehensive coverage of Latin American cinema and reprints seminal articles by, among others, Truffaut, Godard, Pasolini, and Serge Daney. Cineaste Associate Adrian Martin’s Rouge, which promises articles on directors ranging from Alain Resnais to Tsai Ming-liang by a stellar array of critics, will soon join these worthy downloadable offerings.
While Internet film journals emulate their print brethren, the myriad cinephilic message boards that have sprung up within the last decade are thoroughly sui generis. It is possible to maintain a healthy skepticism concerning the (now perhaps dated) claims that a genuine form of “virtual community” will emerge on the Internet and still admire the zeal and knowledge that often surfaces in these highly specialized, and often quite entertaining, free-for-ails. In addition to amusing “threads” on the dubious merits of’ a panoply of B movies and the best places to obtain Asian DVDs, the somewhat misleadingly named Mobius Home Video Forum (which devotes an enormous amount of space to film as well as DVD and video) has recently spawned a heated debate on the advisability of the Fox Movie Channel’s decision to suddenly cancel their planned Charlie Chan retrospective. Other more focused message boards generously indulge their participants’ obsessions, magnificent or not: the long-running Frameworks is devoted to the rarefied pleasures of the avantgarde, A Film By invites die- hard auteurists to lovingly consider the careers of cherished directors such as Howard Hawks, Douglas Sirk, and Frank Borzage, and the more academically oriented “discussion salon,” Film-Philosophy, fortunately does not limit itself to assessing the relationship of cinema to the work of Heidegger or Derrida but imbues its scholarly concerns with a surprising amount of genuine passion for moviegoing.
Web sites created by individual film buffs (the Internet equivalents of personal ‘zines) are even more idiosyncratic and too numerous to list here given the brief space. Varying widely in quality, and incorporating everything from the musings of outright cranks to the collected reviews of professional critics, these sites perform a significant function. As critic Steve Erickson observes, given the fact that most mainstream writing on film is little more than an extension of the realm of advertising, Internet personal sites provide a useful training ground for young critics. Whether dispensing crackpot advice or sagacious insights, these sites are nothing if not antidotes to the blandness of the official film culture, which is more preoccupied with box office grosses than artistic excellence.


Yes, Surprised: Rare occurrence Low costs Getting hooked

Rush to acquire documentaries; ‘Survivor’ generation drives hits
At Telluride Film Festival, hit mainstream movies like Lost in Translation made their world premieres. But it was a documentary about former United States Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, called The Fog of War, that had crowds lining up all along the street.
At the Toronto International Film Festival this year, the two runners-up for the People’s Choice Award — picked from more than 300 foreign-language, Hollywood and independent films — were documentaries.
And at the New York Film Festival this month, the quickest sellout wasn’t the critically acclaimed, star-studded Mystic River. It was an unknown German documentary called Stalingrad, about a World War II battle.
“It was the biggest surprise to me in 16 years working at the festival,” says Richard Peña, chair of the festival selection committee and program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “We had 150 extra ticket orders for Stalingrad. We had to add another screening.”
Documentaries are suddenly in vogue, after years of being relegated to Sunday evenings on PBS or the Discovery Channel. Thanks to the influx of television shows like Survivor, audiences have grown more comfortable with real-life stories and have been flocking to cinemas for nonfiction of a more intellectual sort. Box-office grosses for documentaries now rival those for successful indie films.
Stunned by the art form’s newfound popularity and profitability, independent film companies are paying more attention to documentaries than ever before, rushing to acquire them at film festivals for distribution and even producing them in-house.
“Documentary films used to be treated as second-class citizens by the press, the ancillary market and the public,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “Now they’re becoming more mainstream and more popular.”
In the midst of the summer popcorn movies, three theatrically released documentaries brought in significant grosses at the box office and received significant press attention. Capturing the Friedmans, a story about a father and son charged with sexual abuse, made $3.1 million domestically; Spellbound, which follows a national spelling bee, grossed nearly $6 million; and Winged Migration, a documentary about birds with no people in it, raked in more than $10 million.
Rare occurrence
“Having three documentaries in the marketplace simultaneously, each of which was successful, is something that none of us who distribute indie films can recall ever happening before,” says Mark Urman, head of distribution for ThinkFilm, which released Spellbound. “These films, following not long after the success of Bowling for Columbine, made us bolder and more encouraged to undertake documentaries as commercial ventures.”
Despite the sudden interest from distributors, documentary filmmakers say it is still a struggle to work in the field. While there are more distribution venues than ever before, more documentaries are being made because filmmakers are using new inexpensive digital cameras.
“It’s a buyer’s market,” says Doug Hawes-Davis, a filmmaker who recently founded a documentary film festival that is scheduled to take place in February in Montana. “Most of the distributors won’t look at anything that comes unsolicited.”
If the newfound popularity of documentaries continues, that may change, however. Most documentaries are much cheaper to produce than feature films, making them prized acquisitions for distributors. Sony Pictures Classics paid only $600,000 for the rights to release Winged Migration in all the English-speaking countries. Last year, the company bought the skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys for $250,000. It made $3 million at the box office and is doing very well on video and DVD.
Marketing costs are generally cheaper, as well. Documentaries tend to rely more on critics’ reviews and word of mouth than on advertising. Publicity costs are also lower, because the films have no stars. Lives of Altar Boys last year. The company had to fly her, her nanny and her publicist around the country, providing hair and makeup professionals and other perks along the way. For the documentary Spellbound, ThinkFilm simply had the kids driven to New York by their parents for an appearance on The Today Show.
“Of the $6 million I’m grossing with Spellbound,” Mr. Urman says, “a lot more of it goes into my pocket.”
Getting hooked
Mr. Urman says he had to be dragged to the screening of Spellbound last year because he was so skeptical of documentaries’ commercial value. But 10 minutes into the movie, he was hooked, and he quickly made the filmmakers an offer. Since then, Mr. Urman has acquired three more documentaries.
Others are jumping in, too. Matt Brodlie, senior vice president of acquisitions at Miramax Films, says that, for the first time, he is going to every documentary screening at the major film festivals and paying very close attention to that segment of the market. Sony Pictures Classics has always distributed documentaries, but the category’s recent success led it to produce its first nonfiction film, The Fog of War.
Ironically, filmmakers and executives credit the antithesis of what they are trying to create as the reason for documentaries’ recent success. The influx of reality shows has made documentaries seem more familiar to the general public, they say.
“Even though Temptation Island and these fine films that go into theaters have little in common, it is still significant that millions of Americans are sitting home on their couches and watching something that doesn’t have stars and fancy sets and costumes,” Mr. Urman says. “It has made it easier for people to walk into a movie theater and relate to eight children in a spelling bee as heroes.”

Cannes coming back around

A mid the orgy of self-congratulation that ended this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it is necessary to remember a simple point: awarding the Palme d’Or to the much-hyped Fahrenheit 9/11 is not going to affect the course of world history. The festival success of Michael Moore’s spirited but uneven attack upon George W Bush will do less to undermine an already bankrupt president than to bolster an increasingly egomaniacal film-maker who grows more pompous and less entertaining by the day.
For the record, Moore has not been “censored” by Disney, whose desire to distance itself from his documentary has merely made Fahrenheit 9/11 the subject of an enthusiastic bidding war. On the contrary, Moore is probably the least censored man on the planet, as was clear during the Cannes fortnight: it was impossible to turn on a television or open a newspaper without encountering another tirade about how he was being silenced for making such a powerful film.
In fact, Fahrenheit 9/11 is an unsatisfying mix of sparky satire and boggy polemic, rehashing swathes of Moore’s disappointing book Dude, Where’s My Country?, sidestepping any international perspective (how come Tony Blair gets off so lightly on Iraq?), and resorting to the emotional cheap shots that threatened to undermine Moore’s far more accomplished Bowling for Columbine. Anyone can make “Dubbya” look stupid-the trick is to be entertaining in the process, and this is where Moore’s film comes unstuck, particularly in the second hour.
Compare this with Errol Morris’s Fog of War, which focused on the far more complex target of Robert McNamara, the erstwhile US defence secretary, and you realise just how fumbled and unfocused Fahrenheit 9/11 is. It’s not a bad film; it is just nowhere near as good as it should be, given Bush’s atrocious track record. For Moore, it’s a win-win situation: if Bush loses the forthcoming election, the director will claim credit for his downfall; if Bush wins, Moore can blame Disney. So much for the revolution.
The real surprise at Cannes this year was The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a biopic of the troubled comedian which turned out to be a breezy treat. Although pre-screening publicity had focused on an assortment of angered wives and children with axes to grind, the relationship at the heart of the film is between Sellers (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush) and the director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow), the man behind the Pink Panther films whose success both rewarded and appalled the star. Getting the love-hate balance between these two men just right, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely demonstrate an intelligent empathy for the complexity of Sellers’s situation. Meanwhile, the director, Stephen Hopkins, has fun recreating scenes from movies such as Dr Strangelove and Being There. Who ever thought that this former horror hack, whose credits include Predator 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, had such a classy, accomplished film in him?
Other reasons to be cheerful at Cannes included Maggie Cheung’s moving performance as a reformed drug addict in Olivier Assayas’s Clean, for which she rightly won the festival’s Best Actress award. Despite a smattering of booing at the screening that I attended, Clean turned out to be a far more engaging work than Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, another film graced by Cheung’s unearthly presence; it proved an oddly hollow experience. Unquestionably the best-looking film of the festival (the cinematographer Christopher Doyle proving his genius once more), 2046 will need some radical restructuring if it is to win the hearts of those who embraced Wong’s earlier masterpiece In the Mood for Love.
Meanwhile, although 14-year-old Yagira Yuuya scooped Best Actor for his role in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Nobody Knows, the real male star of the festival was clearly Gael García Bernal, stunning in drag in Pedro Almodóvar’s acclaimed opener Bad Education, and utterly convincing as the young Che Guevara in Walter Salles’s surprisingly apolitical Motorcycle Diaries. Eschewing tub-thumping polemic for heartfelt personal sympathy, Salles’s film overflows with genuine kindness, something of an exception in a festival often beset by soap-box posturing.
Which leads me to Clunker of the Festival, an award that I have no hesitation in presenting to Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique. With an endless array of dreary intellectuals spouting crackerjack philosophy, this limp anti-war diatribe plumbed new depths of artsy pretension, concluding ultimately that war is bad, men and women are different, and that this business with Israel is all a bit complicated. Despite the pacifist message, Notre Musique left me really wanting to punch someone.
Towards the end of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, the frequent condemnation of the festivities as “the worst Cannes ever” became a loudly intoned mantra–one that was gleefully chanted by critics for mass-circulation dailies as well as hard-core auteurists from specialized film journals. It was of course impossible to discern if the entries rejected by festival director Gilles Jacob and his deputy Thierry Frémaux–new films by, among others, Jacques Rivette and Bruno Dumont–were in fact significantly better (or for that matter worse) than some of the clinkers on display at the Palais. The journalists, frustrated by the largely uninspiring movies and the long queues– were clearly out for blood. And who could blame them? The films in competition at the world’s most prestigious film festival included second-rate work by well-regarded filmmakers such as François Ozon, Raul Ruiz, and Alexander Sokurov, outright turkeys by Pupi Avati and Bertrand Blier, and conversation pieces by provocateurs like Lars von Trier and Gus Van Sant that divided critics into warring camps. While a demonstration in the streets of Cannes protesting the French government’s new pension schemes proved livelier than many of the films, it was also difficult to deny that the squabbling over the more acclaimed films’ dubious merits was as much bound up with politics as with esthetic standards.
To give discredit where it’s due, a ludicrous “culture war” was stirred up by Variety critic Todd McCarthy’s assertion that two of the festival’s most controversial films, von Trier’s Dogville and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, were either ‘anti-American’ or ‘amoral.’ Both films were far from master-pieces, but the glib judgments issued by McCarthy and his American cohorts only muddied the waters and blurred distinctions between these directors’ occasionally confused political perspectives and their films’ artistic ambitions.
Similarly, Roger Ebert’s self-assured denunciation of Vincent Gallo’s much- maligned The Brown Bunny as the worst film ever in competition in Cannes (it was far from the worst entry in this year’s Cannes–an award that surely most go to Blier’s strenuously unfunny sex farce, Les Côtelettes) only encouraged the French dailies Le Monde and Libéation to label Gallo’s painfully earnest tribute to Seventies road movies a near-masterpiece.

Fellini is back

Fellini mistrusted self-congratulatory discussions of his own work and preferred to let his films speak for themselves. Two remarks sum up his attitude better than any others. “I don’t have any universal ideas and I think I feel better not having them”; and “I don’t want to demonstrate anything. I want to show it.” In the case of the first remark, in spite of Fellini’s modesty, the popularity of his films denies Fellini’s claim that his work does not have universal appeal. In the second case, Fellini’s preference to privilege image over ideology explains in large measure why his first declaration is untrue. It is perhaps better to remember that Fellini always claimed he was a liar but an “honest” one. Like Picasso, the artist he always admired for his creative genius and his inventiveness, Fellini believed art is a lie that tells the truth. Pettigrew’s documentary captures perfectly the ambiguity in Fellini’s personality and his work in this regard.
Besides Calvino, other friends and associates of Fellini focus on defining aspects of his personality. Tito Benzi (a childhood friend and the model for the young protagonist of Amarcord [1973]) speaks eloquently of the tragic and premature death of Fellini’s first and only child and how it affected his relationship with his wife, Giulietta Masina. Masina plays a small but important role as the prostitute Cabiria in The White Sheik, a part that prepared producers to accept her for more important performances in Fellini’s La Strada (1954) and The Nights of Cabiria (1957), two films that made her an international star less than a decade after the appearance of The White Sheik. Tullio Pinelli, Fellini’s scriptwriter on many of his most important works, from The White Sheik to The Voice of the Moon (1990), discusses the important role of scripts in Fellini’s career and quite rightly rejects the popular notion that Fellini always improvised on the set. Giuseppe Rotunno, Fellini’s cameraman on a number of major films, including Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), Amarcord, and Fellini’s Casanova (1976), offers interesting insights into Fellini’s use of light and confirms Pinelli’s rejection of the theory that Fellini valued improvisation over careful planning. Dante Ferretti, set designer of The City of Women (1980) and Ginger and Fred (1985), describes how Fellini would devote great attention to even the most minute details on a set, leaving nothing to chance and employing hundreds of sketches produced with Magic Marker pens to convey the visual images in his head to his collaborators. Finally, Pettigrew’s documentary explodes another myth about Fellini–that producers considered him irresponsible for costly production overruns–with remarks offered by Daniel Toscan du Plantier, one of Fellini’s French producers, who concludes that Fellini never capriciously wasted funds but always insisted only on incurring the expenses required to produce the desired esthetic effect.
Perhaps the most interesting comments made on Fellini’s career come from three very different actors, who worked with Fellini over a period of three decades: Terence Stamp (Toby Dammit, 1968), Donald Sutherland (Fellini’s Casanova), and Roberto Benigni (The Voice of’ the Moon). Their descriptions of how Fellini directed them are combined with a number of clips shot behind the camera during production, and these documentary clips are then juxtaposed by Pettigrew to sequences from the completed films themselves. This interaction between the work in progress and the finished product explains a great deal about Fellini’s esthetic aims and his techniques on the set. For Sutherland, the initial experience of working with Fellini was disastrous. Sutherland expected to be told how to interpret his role as the famous Latin lover, but Fellini considered actors to be puppets who were
required primarily to deliver an image, not a performance. Unfortunately for Sutherland, Fellini intended to present Casanova as a very negative figure and had signed Sutherland precisely because his physique and facial features lent themselves to Fellini’s interpretation of the famous Latin Lover. For Terence Stamp, being Fellini’s puppet was a far more positive experience: he believes Fellini’s directions on the set were extremely useful. Benigni–better known in the English-speaking world as the star and director of Life is Beautiful (1997) rather than the protagonist of Fellini’s last film, The Voice of the Moon–declares that Fellini was the first director to treat him seriously, as a true actor rather than a buffoon. All three actors agree that their encounter with Fellini remains one of the high points of their individual careers.
Pettigrew’s documentary clips, rescued from archival obscurity by his careful research, stress two themes: Fellini on the set, directing his actors; and locations that have been transformed by the passage of time since they were first employed in Fellini’s works. Clips showing Fellini at work will be extremely interesting for the viewer unfamiliar with the director’s methods. In the famous scene from Amarcord where the Fascist officer administers castor oil to the protagonist’s father, we see Fellini giving the actor every one of his lines and reciting the responses, playing every role himself behind the camera. The actor playing the Fascist officer merely recites a list of numbers and has no script to declaim: since he was cast for his facial features and not his rhetorical skills as a professional actor, Fellini simply dubs in the dialog after the shooting has been completed. In clips from other films, such as Fellini’s Satyricon, nonprofessional actors hired on for their faces and not their acting ability, repeat numbers to the camera that will later be dubbed with proper dialog. In yet another scene from Fellini’s Satyricon, Fellini directs the two male protagonists as they make love to a slave girl and then to each other. Again, there is no dialog: we see Fellini off camera (but only a few inches away from the actors) directing their every minute gesture. Later, when the scene is replayed from the completed film, it has been magically transformed into something quite exceptional.
Other interesting scenes show Marcello Mastroianni on the set of The City of Women, with a laughing Nanni Moretti on the set watching Mastroianni’s performance (Moretti is never identified by Pettigrew’s film). Mastroianni was Fellini’s perfect actor because he cared absolutely nothing about his motivation in any specific scene: when Fellini told him to move to the right or the left and to recite a line, the actor simply did as he was told without asking questions. Although such an attitude was very untypical of Anglo- Saxon actors such as Stamp or Sutherland, in such masterpieces as La Dolce Vita (1959) or 8 1⁄2 (1963), the personal chemistry between Mastroianni and Fellini worked magic. Other interesting archival footage in Pettigrew’s film includes a scene cut from Fellini’s Casanova–that of Casanova making love to a Moor–and shots behind the scenes of Juliet of the Spirits (1965) in which it is Fellini himself (but off camera) who offers his wife Giulietta Masina sangria, a drink that plays an important role in the film.
Numerous links between locations in films and their condition today are made. Thus, we see the spot where Zampanò abandoned Gelsomina in La Strada (near Ovindoli, a small town eighty kilometers from Rome); the courtyard of the Palazzo del Drago in Filicciano (seventy kilometers from Rome) where Guido and Claudia meet in 8 1/2 Cecchignola Military Reserve
(some twenty minutes from Cinecittà outside of Rome), where Fellini shot the scene in which Guido imagines his father’s tomb in 8 1/2 and so forth. These shots, so precious to the specialist, are unfortunately wasted on the neophyte, since they are never clearly identified in the documentary. Indeed, the individuals interviewed by Pettigrew are not identified for the audience until the end of the film, an unfortunate arrangement of his material that presupposes a great deal of knowledge about Fellini that few of Pettigrew’s spectators will possess.
Nevertheless, the numerous clips of Fellini discussing his work and his esthetics (thankfully uninterrupted by endless journalistic questions and accompanied only by pertinent clips from his works or other comments by his collaborators) provide what one reviewer rightly calls a master class on filmmaking, Fellini style. Among the topics Fellini addresses are the relationship of reality to fiction (the former is mistrusted, the latter is praised); the question of improvisation (Fellini rejects it, declaring that making a film is similar in its attention to detail to the launching of a rocket ship into space; Fellini does believe in what he calls disponibilità or openness to possibilities on the set that have not been envisioned prior to shooting); inspiration (Fellini has no use for waiting for inspiration, believing that creative artists who do so merely waste precious time in relying upon such a Romantic concept); alienation (Fellini asks how a man can be a film director, a vocation that is akin to being a magician, if he or she lacks faith in the future); imagination (for Fellini, film directing involves a combination of the qualities of a simple artisan and that of a medium); imagery (for Fellini, cinema is first and foremost painterly, relying upon light more than dialog); and esthetics (regardless of whether something is beautiful or ugly, culturally sophisticated or simple, Fellini’s only criterion of value is whether a work of art is “vitale” or alive).
There is no question that Pettigrew’s documentary on Fellini represents, in Fellini’s own words, the most detailed and lengthy conversation with him ever recorded. Its only other rival is a documentary shot by the BBC in 1987 entitled Real Dreams: Into the Dark with Federico Fellini. While the BBC film is more accessible than Pettigrew’s documentary, it makes fewer demands upon the spectator. Ultimately, Pettigrew prefers to let Fellini take center stage, and few viewers of this fascinating documentary will remain untouched by Fellini’s eloquent prescription for a humanistic cinema that depends less upon special effects, car chases, and explosions than upon a poetic view of the human condition. The DVD version of the film that is planned for the future will contain a great deal of previously unreleased archival footage Pettigrew was unable to include in his film because of limitations of time, and that alone would make it an ideal purchase for the serious collector.
Fellini on the film, and interviews with the main protagonists Leopoldo Trieste (Ivan Cavalli) and Brunella Bovo (Wanda Cavalli). In addition, Fellini’s assistant Moraldo Rossi provides important information about the film’s production. Criterion has already produced other excellent DVDs of such Fellini films as Variety Lights:, 8 1/2, Fellini’s Satyricon, Juliet of the Spirits, Orchestra Rehearsal, and And the Ship Sails On. A new Criterion DVD of La Strada, Fellini’s best loved film, is scheduled to be released in time for the anniversary celebrations in October 2003. It will include extensive critical commentary and supplementary materials. Not surprisingly, the Criterion DVD of The White Sheik is, in every respect, an improvement over the currently available videocassette of the film.
The White Sheik occupies an important place in postwar Italian film history because it reflects the beginning of Fellini’s transition from neorealism to a cinema of poetic fantasy, what critics and film historians often describe with varying degrees of approval or disapproval as “the road beyond neorealism.” Although suggested by a story originally written by Michelangelo Antonioni, The White Sheik creates a world that is immediately recognizable as a Fellinian universe by those who have seen several of his other and later works. It focuses upon the world of provincial sentimentalism and the foto- romanzo, the photo-strip cartoon magazine that dominated popular Italian culture in the 1950s just as television would dominate popular culture in Italy after the 1960s. Neorealist cinema stressed protagonists who were essentially social types–the anti-Fascist partisans in Rossellini’s Rome Open City or Paisan; the fishermen of Visconti’s La Terra Trema; the unemployed Roman who loses his bicycle in De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief; the poor pensioner in De Sica’s Umberto D., and so forth. The neorealist protagonist was defined by his or her sociopolitical or economic situation. While such figures were wonderfully drawn and individualized, they were nevertheless ‘typical’ in their reflection of the consequences of specific social conditions–widespread unemployment, poverty, and the chaos in Italian society during and immediately following the Second World War. In the neorealist cinema from which Fellini’s cinema developed, a protagonist’s environment usually shaped his or her character and, therefore, his or her destiny.
While Fellini himself worked on the scripts of many of the most important neorealist classics, his early films depart in important respects from neorealist practice. Even though his locations may often be authentic provincial places outside the commercial studios (such as those selected from the small towns and the country roads that are so evocative in La Strada), and his actors sometimes nonprofessionals, the abrupt shift in direction Fellini’s cinema takes in his “road beyond neorealism” begins in what may be called the “trilogy of character”-Variety Lights, The White Sheik, and I Vitelloni (1953)–a group of films followed by what may be called the “trilogy of salvation or grace”–La Strada, Il Bidone (1955), The Nights of Cabiria (1957).(n3) In the first three films, Fellini abandons the socially defined protagonists of neorealist cinema for eccentric individuals with special links to the world of entertainment and whose personalities all embody a fascination with dreams and fantasies. The “trilogy of character” accepts a Pirandellian definition of character as bifurcated between “mask” (how a character acts in society) and the character’s more authentic “face” (the character’s truer aspirations, ideals, fantasies, and illusions). In the second three films, Fellini links such protagonists with a special affinity to the world of fantasy with traditional Christian symbolism, employing the idea of conversion, grace, and saintly suffering for entirely secular and nonreligious poetic purposes.
The White Sheik was such a financial disaster when it was first released that it very nearly ended Fellini’s directing career as quickly as it had begun. Yet, half a century after its release, it has been described as a comic masterpiece by no less authoritative voices than Orson Welles and Woody Allen. The film juxtaposes the personalities of two newlyweds, fresh from the provinces on a Roman honeymoon. Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) represents the typical petit-bourgeois patriarchal husband, characterized by a mechanical (and always completely ridiculous) obsession with time and order, while Wanda Cavalli (Brunella Bova) must repress her romantic aspirations and is forced to seek an emotional outlet from a liberal dosage of photo-romance magazines. One character in these publications in particular has her enthralled: The White Sheik, a comic version of the Rudolph Valentino character from the silent classic films The Sheik and Son of the Sheik. In real life, this dashing figure is a tawdry fraud and failed Lothario named Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi in his first important role), but Wanda sees only in this cartoon figure the dashing lover she lacks in her married life.
After the couple reaches their Roman hotel, Wanda sneaks off to meet her idol, and the rest of the film focuses upon the misadventures of the couple before they finally reunite just in time to attend the papal audience at the Vatican with Ivan’s relatives. “Dreams are our true lives,” says Wanda to the editor of the photo-romance magazine, but she eventually discovers that Fernando Rivoli in the flesh is a poor substitute for her dream world built around the romantic projections she has created around this magazine character. While Wanda’s romantic view of the world is buffeted by her experiences, Ivan’s moralistic authoritarianism weakens to the point that he goes off with a Roman prostitute before meeting up with his wife the next morning. Fellini structures the entire narrative around two separate storylines, cutting back and forth between Wanda’s misadventures and those of Ivan, in a form of dramatic and intrusive editing that many neorealists would have rejected as far too close to Russian or Hollywood practices.
Ivan and Wanda are recognizable comic types, and The White Sheik offers no dramatic epiphany at the close of the film. We see the clash of mask and face in their stories, but at the conclusion of the film, Wanda leaves behind the world of the photo romance, declaring that Ivan is now her White Sheik, while Ivan maintains quite dishonestly that he, too, has remained pure and innocent during the time they were separated. Both characters depart from one set of illusions and at the close of the film, they accept a very different set of illusions upon which to base their future married life.

Ode to Africa

Many films today explore the complexities of daily life and what modernity means for Africans. In terms of genre, one finds, for example, comedies, road movies, and many dramatic narrative films. An important facet of many African films lies in the rich storytelling traditions of the continent. Not only
has the history transmitted through oral tradition become the subject of many films, but narrative and aesthetic techniques from that tradition are also often manifest in the film language.
A sociopolitical trend continues to be a very important thematic in African filmmaking, and Diawara has defined it more specifically in terms of social realism. This is not a genre, however, for sociopolitical concerns cross many different types of African films. In multifaceted ways, modernity is a common thread found in these films. In some cases it is postcolonial modernity, in others it is a specific African modernity or a global modernity that is addressed. Films like Mandabi (1968), Xala (1974), Guelwaar (1992), and Faat Kiné (2000), by Ousmane Sembène (Senegal), are good examples of this category, as are such films as Finye (1982) and Waati (1995), by Souleymane Cissé (Mali); Nyamanton (1986), by Cheikh Oumar Sissoko (Mall); and Laafi (1991) and Wendemi, l’enfant du bon dieu (1992), by Pierre Yameogo (Burkina Faso). For example, Djibril Diop Mambéty, the inspirational and very contemporary Senegalese filmmaker, turned the struggles of everyday people into urban poetry with films such as Touki Bouki, Le Franc, and La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil.
An explicit moralist trend is less evident in contemporary African film, although the dilemma between old and new is sometimes represented in these terms. An all-encompassing, ideological militancy is no longer the order of the day, and it is at a much more personal level–through the daily social intricacies of life–that films struggle with moral issues. Films like Haramuya (1995), by Drissa Touré (Burkina Faso); Le prix du pardon (200l), by Mansour Sora Wade (Senegal); Hyènes (1992), by Djibril Diop Mambéty (Senegal); and Le Damier (1996), by Balufa Dakup-Kanyinda (Congo), among others, attest to this tendency.
There is an interesting tendency toward reflexivity–in terms of filmmaking as a profession in Africa and in terms of questioning the cinematic medium– that is far more predominant than an earlier umbilical trend: for example, in films like Un certain matin (1992), by Regina Fanta Nacro (Burkina Faso); Bye Bye Africa (1998), by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Chad); Souko (1997), by Issiaka Konaté (Burkina Faso); Aristotle’s Plot (1996), by Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Cameroon); and, less explicitly, in Life on Earth (1998), by Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania/Mali).
Sissako, whose films have practically all been shown at the Cannes Film Festival, is one of the most well-known and interesting African filmmakers on the scene today, and his best work is highly reflexive. He combines a poetic and intellectual film language that is often an exploration of the self. His refined minimalist aesthetic orchestrates space, light, sound, and silence in ways that beckon the spectator to read between the lines. In contrast, Haroun, whose latest film was also selected for Cannes, often strives for a style of cinema that is more concerned with engaging the spectator through emotion, color, drama, and suspense and through more constructed narrative forms concerning issues of contemporary identity in Africa.
Just as it has become an increasingly pervasive subject in many of the world’s cinema traditions, the cultural trend continues to flourish in African filmmaking, although it has evolved in diverse dimensions. The way that traditional social and cultural practices participate in contemporary society is
a concern of many groups, in particular those who feel threatened by the various guises of hegemonic forces, from local to globalized forms of governance and power. In its most evident cinematic form, this tendency is seen in films that are directly inspired by historical and oral narratives: for example, Keita! L’héritage du griot (1995), by Dany Kouyaté (Burkina Faso); La Genèse (1999) and Guimba (1995), by Cheikh Oumar Sissoko (Mali); Ceddo (1976), by Sembène Ousmane (senegal); and Taafa fanga (1997), by Adama Drabo (Mali). There is also a tendency within this cultural trend to highlight particular moments or cultural traditions within the history of a particular group, and the attachment to political issues is often absent or abstract in such films as Yeelen (1987), by Souleymane Cissé (Mali), and Tilai (1990) and Yaaba (1989), by Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso).
A commercial cinema, in the sense of having an industrial basis with popular spectatorship and a continual flow of production, does not yet exist. If we understand commercial as related to more mainstream and popular cinema, then there is a noticeable evolution in this direction. Films like Wendemi (1992), by Pierre Yameogo; Haramuya (1995), by Drissa Touré; Samba Traor  ́ (1992) and Kini  ́ Adams (1997), by Idrissa Yameogo; Faat Kiné (2000), by Sembène Ousmane; and older films like Bal poussière (1988), by Henri Duparc; and La vie est belle (1987), by Mweze Ngangura and Benoit Lamy (Congo), move in this direction, but they often maintain simultaneously a moral and didactic fiber. In this commercial direction, there is an increasing effort on the part of various film directors to film in video, specifically for local television.
The filmmaking culture that developed in the zones where French is still spoken was given impetus by a number of factors. After independence, France financially promoted African film production, which has contributed to a specific film culture and a cinéma d’auteur. A strong socioeducative tendency was also promoted in French policy, and this, too, has marked African fiction film. The beginnings of fiction filmmaking in this region of Africa are also influenced, to a certain degree, by Third Cinema politics and aesthetics. The idea behind Third Cinema was that film should take into account local realities and contribute to the educational, social, economic, and political development of the community. In addition, many African filmmakers grew up seeing Hollywood films, westerns, and action films, so this is also reflected in various ways in the filmmaking.
Filmmaking in this region has developed in a very collaborative manner between Africa and Europe, with considerable amounts of funding coming from sources in Europe. The films made by African directors from the francophone regions of Africa are the most widely known and distributed in Europe and North America. They seldom have distribution contracts prior to completion, usually circulate in international and alternative circuits, are often marketed in national or regional ways, and are highly dependent on the recognition gained at international film festivals. It is difficult to obtain distribution in Africa because the film markets are dominated by foreign films, especially Hollywood productions, Indian musical melodramas, and Chinese kung-fu films, but when African films are shown they are often avidly attended by local audiences.
It has been shaped by both the aesthetic qualifies of the cinema and by the conditions of production and distribution. On the one hand, there was an aspiration that African filmmakers would create a new cinematic language that was “authentically African”; on the other hand, the reality of a financially and geographically displaced system of production has shaped the way many scholars have approached this cinema. A boom of writing on the subject occurred in the 1990s following the first English monograph on the subject written by Manthia Diawara (1992). With few exceptions, most of the English-language work consists of edited volumes. Prior to this period, most of the writing on African cinema was in French, by Pierre Haffner among others, and the journal CinémAction has always devoted writing to African filmmaking.
The question of the authenticity of an African film language has long accompanied the subject. African filmmakers are generally expected to be Africans first and not simply filmmakers as such. For example, whereas Haffner (1978) argued that an example of authentic African cinema was the popular African cinema consisting of cinematic adaptations of Koteba theater performances made in the Ivory Coast, Frank Ukadike (1994) has argued for certifying the authenticity of African feature films because they are based historically in African oral traditions. While the question of cultural authenticity is, in itself, a problematic line of argumentation, it has largely been pursued because of the specificities in the context of production. The dialogue between cinema and oral traditions; the strategies of the griot; and various means of storytelling, improvisation, linguistic codes, et cetera, transformed and appropriated by the cinematic language, do nevertheless present some of the specificities of this African cinema.(n6) It is interesting to follow some of the current formal film analysis, which brings to the fore cinematic structures that draw on local oral narratives and transform and innovate oral practices into cinematic form and see this work in combination with ongoing historical, social, cultural, and political analyses.
That cinema should contribute to the social and political development of African societies lay at the origins of this art, and the creation of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) in 1970 was motivated by these objectives. Even though the FEPACI still exists today, it no longer plays the ideological role to which it once aspired, and African cinema has increasingly diversified. More and more, the desire of African filmmakers to use their art to express themselves does not always coincide with the desire to contribute to the development of “Africa,” be it a locality, nation, region, or continent. Even so, the idea of contributing to knowledge about Africans and contributing to the knowledge of Africans themselves, through fictional narratives and without didacticism, remains a very important characteristic in African cinema from this region.
In conclusion, African filmmaking in sub-Saharan African often foreshadows current and future discussions on contemporary filmmaking in many other parts of the world. As transnational financial collaboration and co-production become more and more of a necessity and as more and more groups of people continue questioning specific identities, the experience of African fiction filmmaking already has a long experience of mapping identity into a financially transnational and complex context.


AT THE CANNES INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, three films made by African directors were featured: Abouna, notre père, by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Chad); Heremakono, by Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania/Mali); and Kabala, by Assane Kouyaté (Mall). Almost every year since 1966–when La noire de… by Ousmane Sembène from Senegal was shown–African films have been included in the official or parallel program of the festival. Cannes is certainly one of the most prestigious and globally recognized film festivals, and having a film selected there is no small matter. It is noteworthy then that African films shown at Cannes and numerous other festivals are rarely programmed for regular screenings in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s and early 1990s African films did gain considerable visibility, for they were in cinematic fashion at the time, later to be replaced by Iranian and new Asian cinemas.
The ubiquitous term African cinema usually refers to films made by directors from countries of sub-Saharan Africa where French is spoken, but it also generally evokes a type or genre of film. Strictly speaking, African cinema refers to all the films made by directors from any country on the African continent from Morocco and Egypt down to South Africa, including the diaspora. In practice, however, Egyptian cinema is labeled as such (or as part of Arab cinema). Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian cinemas are often called
North African, Maghreb, or Arab cinema. Nigerian and Ghanaian cinemas are usually grouped together because of their common colonial history and because their industries developed in a somewhat similar manner. There is also sporadic film production from other English-and Portuguese-speaking regions. In the South African region, filmmaking evolved in a distinct manner because it was far more integrated into the American system. This essay high lights film in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, which is the most internationally recognized African cinema.
It is noteworthy that films made in certain countries are labeled nationally, whereas others are labeled with the generic term African cinema. For example, Fetid Boughedir and Moufida Tlatli are considered Tunisian film directors, while Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso) and Ousmane Sembène (Senegal) are often referred to as African film directors. This lack of a national or more specific reference in the latter case should be noted. It is often justified because there are commonalities in the film history of the sub- Saharan countries, in part due to the influence of French policy and in part because the countries face similar conditions of production, distribution, and exhibition. Indeed, there are no clearly distinguishable genre differences that adhere to national boundaries in the area, so in one sense there is a regional logic. Even so, in a film world that has historically sought its legitimacy in national terms, the denomination in a singular form remains problematic. Before turning to feature filmmaking in sub-Saharan Africa, a brief cinematic tour d’horizon of the continent would be useful.
A CONTINENTAL Tour d’Horizon
IN SOUTH AFRICA, systematic film production began in 1911. It was not until 1956 that Americans really took over the market, buying out the main South African interests. Even prior to 1957, film production in South Africa consisted mostly of Hollywood-emulated products made mainly for white audiences. During the 1980s, as the anti-apartheid boycott gained strength, international distribution linkages slowed down and production all but collapsed. “What apartheid therefore facilitated,” according to Tomaselli and Shepperson, “was the exclusive institutionalisation of a Hollywood and domestic conservative cinema within a specific set of relations of regulation: race/space, authoritarian censorship, and financial access mainly for whites.”(n1) During the 1990s, South Africa restructured its film industry, adapting French and Australian models. Zimbabwe then followed South Africa’s example, adopting new legislation in 1996 to establish greater coherence between these two important African film industries. With the end of legislated apartheid, many countries on the continent looked to South Africa, hoping to collaborate cinematically with this wealthy country that had a long-standing film industry. After 1995 some sub-Saharan directors filmed and used the postproduction facilities in the region. For example, Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso) and Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Cameroon) worked on Kini and Adams and Aristotle’s Plot, respectively, in Zimbabwe. As yet, however, there has been no significant change in African filmmaking as a continental project.
In Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, cinema developed in a revolutionary spirit, often as documentaries linked to struggles for independence and inspired by film movements in Brazil and Cuba.
Mozambique was particularly active in this domain and hosted filmmakers from around the world to help develop cinema in the country. When Ruy Guerra directed the National Film Institute, he invited Jean Rouch and Jean- Luc Godard to spend a year working and helping develop a national film policy. Today, the rare filmmakers who surface in these countries are more or less integrated into the francophone film circuit in Europe.
Somalia used to host the Mogadishu International Film Festival, but, as is the case in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan, feature films are exceptions. These anglophone countries have not been able to benefit from the same support as filmmakers in the francophone countries, making it even more difficult for a filmmaker to reach the international circuits. In Nigeria, a theatrical cinema trend–in which Yoruba theater performances were filmed- surfaced during the 1970s and became highly successful with popular audiences, but for the development of cinema this did not prove very beneficial. Ola Balogun, a well-known Nigerian director, resorted to making films of Yoruba theater in order to earn a living, but the public was less interested when he made his own creative films. This practice of filming local theater traditions is not exclusive to the Yoruba in Nigeria and can be seen elsewhere on the continent (e.g., with Koteba theater in the Ivory Coast).
Today, Nigeria and Ghana are rather exceptional because of their prolific videofilm industry, which followed the breakdown of the developing film tradition. Homemade videofilm theaters flourish, with entrepreneurs setting up a videocassette recorder in a private or public space and selling cheap tickets for the projections. Mechanics, taxi drivers, and the average person about town now make their own films on video. Melodramas flourish as a soap-opera genre, as do films that delve into religious and spiritual beliefs in the everyday lives of the people. In both Nigeria and Ghana, this videofilm industry has even appropriated parts of the cinema infrastructures through collaboration in exhibition, distribution, and production.(n2)
Egypt has the oldest film industry on the continent, and from the postwar period and into the 1990s, Egypt was producing about fifty films per year and served as a major exporter of films throughout the African continent. Most of this cinema consists of melodramas, social dramas, historical epics, and farces–all with much singing and dancing. It is largely a popular cinema, although some filmmakers, such as Youssef Chahine, grew out of this mainstream industry to become internationally renowned making films that were both popular and intellectual. Today, Indian musical melodramas and Chinese kung-fu films have replaced the strong position that Egyptian films held in export markets throughout Africa.
In northern Africa, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia also have a long film history. Screenings of the Lumières’ cinématographe were organized in Algiers and Oran in Algeria in 1896 and in Tunis in 1897. Although films produced in these countries have not benefited from the same local popularity as the Egyptian films, they are better known abroad, especially in European art houses. Nevertheless, post-independence cinema was at first a state enterprise in these countries. Algeria was the most structured in developing its cinema, although conditions deteriorated again significantly in 1995 and have changed little since then. Filmmakers like Mohamed Lahkdar-Hamina came to the fore with Le vent d’Aurès (1966) and Chronique des années de braise (1975), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1976.
In Tunisia and Morocco, the local productions were seen even less than in Algeria. Tunisian filmmakers like Nouri Bouzid, (Bezness, 1992), Moufida Tlatli (Les silences du palais, 1994), and Fetid Boughedir (Halfaouine, 1990) have brought sustained international attention to their national cinema. Local producers (Ahmed Attia, Dora Bouchacheb), film editors (Kahena Attia), other personalities (Tahar Chariaa, Nourredine Sail), as well as the Carthage International Film Festival all contribute to the industry. Like the sub- Saharan filmmakers, these North African filmmakers also find support in France and Europe, and their films also circulate largely within the European film and festival circuits.
THERE IS A STRONG FILM CULTURE in such countries as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. Burkina Faso, for example, hosts biennially the renowned Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO) and is a central hub of activity in the region. Since the 1960s, filmmaking in this region has slowly but consistently developed into a diverse and rich panoply of cinematographic images.
Many people think of African cinema as a certain type of filmmaking: that is to say, “village” films with themes of conflict between “traditional” and “modern” ways of life. In reality, there are many different types and genres of feature films made by African directors as well as a diversity of aesthetic forms. Some scholars have typologized African films–like Fetid Boughedir and Guy Hennebelle, who were among the first–with revisions made by scholars such as Manthia Diawara.(n3) While it is nearly impossible to quantify the work of so many filmmakers, Boughedir proposed five main trends in African films: (1) a political (or sociopolitical) trend, in which “the filmmakers analyse reality through social, economic and political criteria. The clash of the old and new is explained in terms of a confrontation between social classes with antagonistic interests, in terms of national or foreign power, in terms of economic choice, in terms of dependence and independence, in terms of a struggle to change the authorities and institutions from which the situation criticized arises”; (2) a moralist trend, in which the emphasis is on human change as opposed to institutional change and the clash between old and new is given as a moral choice; (3) an “umbilical” trend, reflective of an identity crisis on the part of the filmmaker, corresponding to Fanon’s “second phase” of the colonized intellectual who has first sold his soul to the West and attempts a “blind return to his roots”; (4) a cultural trend, in which a discussion of civilization is based on culture rather than on politics or morals and tradition is integrated in its positive and negative aspects; (5) a commercial trend, in which films often have a moral message.(n4) These categories provide an initial basis to better understand early African cinema, but they need updating to capture the scope of contemporary sub-Saharan filmmaking.

Who is best? Film Trade magazines

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It used to be that they were both published on a daily basis (Mon-Fri), with Variety also published in a thicker, once a week, weekly issue.

Today, Hollywood Reporter is published just once-a-week on Tuesday and is more geared to gossip & fashion with a couple of in depth business articles on a celeb or a company or a tv series or a movie franchise. It has become good “john” reading material.

Today, Variety, still publishes a weekly issue and a daily (Mon-Fri) series. However, it is trying to morph itself into the digital social media world as its print edition slowly lose advertising pages and it is disappearing.

Three years ago Variety was valued at $100 Million. Today I hear values like $30 Million. (Oooh, the $40 Million above is then a good deal). Plus, the page count has gone down and down and down. The last issue of Variety (weekly) has only 28 pages.

Here they are:

VARIETY (July 30-August 5) articles

1) TOYS R US (pages 1, 9 & 27): Article on merchandising & licensing for movie TED

2) ANGER MISMANAGEMENT (page 1&2): Competition between Cable/Satellite owners and Cable Networks with cost to subscribers

3) MUSIC MAVEN’S BIG DEAL (page 1&8): “Big Machine”, a record label expands.

4) FADING SUPERSTAR (page 4): Gossip-Business on Andrew Lloyd Webber

5) CHANNEL 4 SPINOFF (page 4): UK tv channel creates channel for Twitter & Facebook users (found it very interesting)

This is this week’s Variety. And, if you are truly in the industry, especially a corporate exec or an agent, with no talent, then you better be up on the gossip and need to subscribe to Variety with Hollywood Reporter becoming more of an in-depth Business-Fashion magazine than a trade newspaper.

If you are not in the industry then I recommend going to your public library once-a-month and catching up with the gossip after it is on TMZ. But TMZ doesn’t detail business-gossip that is for Variety.

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