Sunday, February 28, 2010


Gary Meyer and crew deserve a big birthday greeting for pulling together their annual bash to celebrate the Balboa Theater. With a tip of the hat to 1926, they'll be screening The Cat and the Canary with Laura LaPlante accompanied live by Dave Miotke, selected short subjects, a live vaudeville show featuring magician James Hamilton and singer Linda Kosut, the Balboa Premiere of Double Features, a silent short film shot at the theater, and birthday cake by Diane Boate, who each year creates a themed and delicious work of art to eat. Doors open at 6:30PM; show starts at 7:00PM. Jack Tillmany will be signing and selling copies of his books on the theatres of San Francisco and Oakland. Read more about the festivities here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

GERMAN GEMS—Mensch Kotschie / Fräulein Stinnes fährt um die Welt

Like a veritable phoenix from the ashes, Ingrid Eggers has recovered from being summarily dismissed by Rudolf de Baey, Director of the Goethe Institute, where she was let go as the programmer for the Institute's annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. Her unexpected dismissal sent shock waves through the Bay Area film community—much like the graceless dismissal of Anita Monga from the Castro Theatre some years back—and brought to the surface the abiding respect and affection festival audiences have for the keen spirit Eggers has contributed to San Francisco's festival landscape. Whereas Monga's dismissal inspired an entrenched boycott of the Castro Theatre for several months, Ingrid's situation reflects the inverse: the rallying cry has been to show up at the Castro Theatre this Sunday, February 28, 2010 to support German Gems, Ingrid's one-day six-hour celebration of German and Austrian cinema. Three of the films will screen at Point Arena on March 6, 2010.

German Gems has added importance for filling the gap left by the capsized Berlin & Beyond film festival, which failed to run in its annual late January time slot. Word has it that one of Mr. de Baey's first decisions was to re-mount Berlin & Beyond in the fall, which immediately struck me as ill-advised since San Francisco's festival season is already at capacity at that time. One journalist friend emailed Mr. de Baey warning him that shifting the festival to the fall would be crazy, to which Mr. de Baey succinctly countered, "I am not crazy." Okay then, how does stubborn fit? Or better yet, arrogant? When it comes to Rudolf de Baey, little cattle little care. More pertinently, German Gems promises to be a new incarnation of Ingrid Eggers' insightful programming with five films screened back to back. The event has even received a vote of confidence from Berlinale Festival Director Dieter Kosslick, who has written: "Dear Film Friends in San Francisco, Good luck with your new film project. With Ingrid Eggers at the helm, German Gems is set to sparkle at the top of German cinema in America today."

KALW's Kevin Robinson elicited a preview from Ingrid Eggers on his radio program
Crosscurrents. They discuss two of the films on the German Gems slate—Vision, Margarethe von Trotta's acclaimed portrait of Hildegard von Bingen, and Tender Parasites by Austrian filmmaker Wolfgang Murnberger—as well as financing opportunities for filmmakers in Germany's current climate.

On screener, I've watched two films from the German Gems line-up and look forward to catching the rest at Sunday's event. In Norbert Baumgarten's sophomore feature Being Mr. Kotschie (Mensch Kotschie, 2009) the skies are cerulean with promise, but the clouds in protagonist Jürgen Kotschie's coffee are ominously rumbling and roiling. Baumgarten has infused the male midlife crisis with droll melancholy and scored it with Baroque a capella music that adds a dash of whimsy to Jürgen's emotional quandary.

Though he seems to have everything a man could ask for: wife, home, family, success, money, and admiring colleagues, Jürgen Kotschie is having difficulty facing 50 and his self-confidence is as mutable as … well … the clouds in the sky. Plagued by insomnia, and with the constant reminder of his father's senility indicating what's to come now that his youth is behind him and his body is in decline, Jürgen's complacency unravels as he grows at odds with his hectoring wife, his selfish and unresponsive son, and the banality of his workday routine. He takes off on a last-chance adventure down the proverbial road not taken and encounters a freeloading dog, a free-spirited hitchhiker, a lost love, and a chance to bare his soul on a karaoke stage. That scene, incidentally, reveals actor
Stefan Kurt at his best. It's painful to watch him awkwardly singing Del Shannon's "Runaway" even as he realizes his youth has already run away from him and there is nothing he can do about it.

This admittedly familiar fable is rendered poignant by top-notch production values, including winningly-pitched ensemble comic performances, a colorful palette, surreal setpieces, and the aforementioned baroque choral score (the film won Best Production at Kinofest Lünen 2009). Baumgarten will be in attendance at both the film's Castro and Point Arena screenings.

In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department comes Erica von Moeller's Miss Stinnes Travels the World (Fräulein Stinnes fährt um die Welt, 2009), a fictionalized documentary hybrid that recounts the globetrotting adventures of Clärenore Stinnes, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who decided to circumnavigate the globe in an Adler. Accompanied by two mechanics and Swedish cameraman Carl-Axel Söderström (who worked with Greta Garbo before she abandoned Sweden for Hollywood), the team set out from Berlin in 1927, passing through the Balkans via Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran to Moscow, where—abandoned by the two mechanics—Stinnes and Söderström carried on through Siberia, crossed the frozen Lake Baikal and the Gobi desert and arrived in Peking. They traveled by ferry to Japan, later to Hawaii and South America, eventually to the United States, and back home to Berlin two years later after a journey of 47,000 km by car.

As amazing as this accomplishment might be, the film suffers from the selfsame drudgery that characterizes the grueling effort to achieve such an accomplishment. The narrative is largely composed of incidents where the car gets stuck or breaks down and Stinnes cries about it. Söderström's original footage is interspersed throughout von Moeller's project and is, by far, its most redeeming attribute, along with some compelling graphics that chart the Adler's trajectory across the globe with intertitular historical context. Footage of Peking in 1927 is simply tremendous and greatly overpowers the film's anemic narrative construct, which is—unfortunately—poorly lensed. One wonders why von Moeller elected to mix genres instead of providing a straightforward documentary? Granted, Clärenore Stinnes lacked considerable charisma on camera and it might have been necessary to cast an actress (Sandra Hüller) to portray her in order to convey some of her conflicted feelings for traveling partner Söderström. Though this device pushes the narrative forward, it does so ploddingly, much like Stinnes' Adler in Argentina's Cordillera. Perhaps von Moeller will explain her choices when she attends both the Castro and Point Arena screenings.

Cross-published on

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I am pleased to announce the publication of Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities, edited by Dina Iordanova with Ruby Cheung, published by University of St. Andrews Film Studies in conjunction with their Dynamics of World Cinema project. The book is the second in the series; the first volume, the Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit, was published in 2009. I'm pleased—not only because I was invited to contribute my essay "Diasporas by the Bay: Two Asian Film Festivals in San Francisco"—but, primarily, because my essay promotes two of my favorite film festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area: the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the 3rd i Film Festival.

As the publishers have synopsized: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities, the second volume in the Film Festival Yearbook series, brings together essays about festivals that use international cinema to mediate the creation of transnational "imagined communities". There are texts about the cultural policies and funding models linked to these festivals, as well as analysis of programming practices linked to these often highly politicized events. The case studies discuss diaspora-linked festivals that take place in Vienna, San Francisco, San Sebastian, Havana, Bradford, Sahara, South Korea, and London and that feature cinema from places as diverse as Nepal and Kurdistan, Africa and Latin America. Authors include Lindiwe Dovey, Ruby Cheung, Michael Guillén, Jérôme Segal, Miriam Ross, Roy Stafford, Yun Mi Hwang, Isabel Santaolalla and Stefan Simanowitz, Mustafa Gündoğdu, and Dina Iordanova. The Resources section features an up-to-date bibliography on film festival scholarship (by Skadi Loist and Marijke de Valck) and an extensive thematically-organized listing of a variety of transnational festivals. Dina Iordanova has offered the volume's contents at her own site

Jonathan Rosenbaum has written: "The very ambitious aspiration of the Film Festival Yearbook is, quite literally, to define a new area of film study. Part of the implied agenda of the book, given the scope and seriousness of the aspiration, is to combine some of the best and most valuable features of scholarly rigor with some of the most valuable features of journalism. The book can be useful to potential and actual film festival programmers as well as to academics who are studying film festivals as a social phenomenon. Filmgoers with particular interests of their own as well as those who are invested in specific national or ethnic groups will also be attracted to this volume."

Faye Ginsburg, Director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University has written: "Film Festivals and Imagined Communities—the second volume in the series—opens up new horizons both for those who study media and those who create the significant but often overlooked "media worlds" where films first get launched: film festivals from the "periphery". Anyone who has attended or helped run one knows the intensity and significance of these distinctive social arenas in calling attention to new work as well as to emergent cultural possibilities. This excellent collection clarifies the role that film festivals play as venues that constitute a social universe for diverse groups, audiences, and artists (diasporic, indigenous, LGBT, migrant workers). With articles addressing how these festivals work—from the economic and artistic considerations of those who produce them to the way they help to 'imagine communities'—we start to understand the role these festivals play for members of minority communities that too rarely see cinematic work related to their lives. This collection is indispensable for anyone interested in understanding contemporary global media and what makes it work."

Finally, of related interest, is a recently-published article by Konrad Ng (University of Hawaii, Mānoa)—"Thoughts from Oslo, Norway: Film Festivals and Expanding the Moral Imagination"—published at FlowTV. In his article Ng aligns certain lines of reasoning from President Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize with cinema, especially with regard to "the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there's something irreducible that we all share." Following this line of reasoning, Ng proposes that film festivals can serve as a "model of engagement that may help expand our moral imagination." Citing Michael Shapiro's Cinematic Geopolitics, Ng suggests that "film festivals can be a space for envisioning possibility and articulating critical attitudes towards acts of violence and oppression; film festivals can 'provide a venue for films with significant anti-violence and anti-war themes and cinematic styles' and by doing so, assist the expansion of the moral imagination." By way of case study, Ng takes a look at how grassroots Asian American film festivals such as the Los Angeles Pacific Film Festival (sponsored by Visual Communications), and the International Asian American Film Festivals in both New York (sponsored by Asian CineVision) and San Francisco (sponsored by CAAM) contribute "a critical role in translating and transforming a notion of community into cultural and political engagement."

CAAM's Executive Director Stephen Gong acknowledges Ng's thesis as "provocative and convincing" and states: "There are many kinds of film festival, [of] course. Some of the largest are integral to the marketing and distribution of cinema as entertainment. Some at the other end are more geared toward civic boosterism. Our sector, and one shared by dozens, if not hundreds of other culturally specific festivals, reflect, as Konrad asserts, an important connection to a cultural or identity-community, and as such, play a key role in the continued evolution of the community and its place within the larger world."

06/02/10 UPDATE: I'm so pleased that the Film Festival Yearbooks are receiving some coverage in film journals. Adam Nayman's review for the current issue of Cineaste surveys both volumes, along with On Film Festivals—the third edition of the Dekalog series guest edited by Cineaste staffer Richard Porton. Nayman has been especially kind to me. He writes: "This plurality of voices extends also to FFY2, which gestures towards the margins of the international film festival network, focusing on festivals geared towards different ethnicities and social groups. It's heartening, for instance, to see a piece written by somebody best known as a blogger— critic Michael Guillén, whose 'Diasporas By the Bay' patiently explicates the ways in which two San Francisco-based initiatives—the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the San Francisco South Asian International Film Festival—have thrived by matching "content to constituency." Thanks for the shout out, Adam!

Cross-published on

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

QUEER ICON: THE CULT OF BETTE DAVIS—Q&A W/ Mike Black, Carole Black Summers, Scott O'Brien, Bernardo Espi, Matthew Kennedy & Michael Guillén

"My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose."—Bette Davis, The Lonely Life, 1962.

On Thursday evening, February 18, 2010,
Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis was screened at Santa Rosa's Rialto Cinemas as a benefit screening for Face to Face—Sonoma County AIDS Network. Gary Carnivele, the host of Outbeat Salon on KRCB—Sonoma county's NPR radio station 91FM—moderated the Q&A after the screening.

As synopsized previously on The Evening Class, Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis examines the many aspects of the gay fascination with Bette Davis, featuring film clips of Bette's most iconic moments, juxtaposed with camp burlesques of her by Matthew Martin and others, including Charles Pierce and Arthur Blake; a profile of Martin highlighting his long identification with Davis; and interviews with fans, entertainers, and gay cultural historians—exploring the link between the gay community and Bette.

As director Mike Black has written at the film's website: "'Masquerade or Drag?' film scholar and Bette Davis specialist Martin Shingler has asked with regard to the Hollywood legend's on-screen femininity, masking as it does that anything but soft or submissive juggernaut, a virtual anti-vamp, at the core of her greatest roles.

"But Davis's sexual ambiguity is only one of the many interpretive challenges as regards her enthusiastic gay following. Does the exaltation of the vividly self-punctuating Davis represent no more than a travesty of the social charade of gender? Or are the hopelessly inadequate and yet all-encompassing twin tyrants Femininity and Masculinity charlatan avatars of the one true goddess ... with icon worship evolving as a means to solidarity among sexual outlaws?

"And if Bette Davis is the object of practically religious adoration, then what can be said of those actors in drag who impersonate her, entertaining gay audiences with farcical exaggerations of her most notorious mannerisms? How best to categorize their function in the subversion of sexual orthodoxy that is part theater and part liturgy?"

Mike Black's rhetorical questions raised their pointed little heads yet again at Queer Icon's benefit screening Q&A. Gary Carnivele kicked the session off by noting that film producer Carole Black Summers and director Mike Black, twins, were born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. As children they became interested in making movies but had to stop production on Attack of the Cactus because it was "too scary." Mike moved to San Francisco in 1973 and Carole followed in 1984. They released their first documentary Queer Icon last year to favorable reviews.

Carnivele asked Carole Black Summers why she decided to make a film about Bette Davis and her dedicated gay fans? "Once we decided to do a documentary," Summers responded, "we knew we wanted to do something about movies. My question to Mike was: why are Bette Davis and Joan Crawford such icons for gay men? We started talking about it and Mike said, 'Let's narrow the focus to Bette Davis.' Then we ran with it because we thought it was a great idea; no one had done anything like that or discussed that. I wanted to know the answer. Hopefully, we found out the answer."

Carnivele then asked Mike Black about his research methodology, including which Bette Davis films he watched to prepare for the documentary? Black answered, "Carole and I both were—and always have been—Bette Davis fans, so we were familiar with a lot of her films already. We re-watched some films, saw some new films, and read some new books. I'd read most of her biographies, including her autobiography The Lonely Life [ghostwritten by Sandford Dody]. Ed Sikov [Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis] has a relatively recent biography of her and I read that; it's a very good book. Matthew Kennedy has written a book about Edmund Goulding [Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy], who is a director who worked with Bette Davis four times so we got that book. We did a lot of book reading—but, we weren't really making a documentary that was a biography of Bette Davis or a comprehensive review of her career—so there was a limit to what that kind of research would do for us. Also, there's vast scholarly literature out there about—not just Bette Davis and gay audiences—but, the whole film spectatorship experience and what the film viewing experience is thought to be about. Reams have been written about the whole process of identifying with images on the screen and I didn't want to squeeze our documentary into some kind of pre-constructed academic thesis. I didn't want too erudite but, perhaps, too abstract an explanation of Bette Davis. I wanted gay men to tell the story themselves. The only real Bette Davis scholar that I sought out was Martin Shingler, only because he writes interestingly about her on-screen sexuality."

Asked how they assembled the talking heads for their documentary, Summers offered: "Once we decided we wanted to do this, immediately we knew we wanted to interview John Triglia and Scott O'Brien. We knew we had to get Matthew Martin because we had to have someone current who was impersonating Bette Davis and—once he was on board—then everything just took off. Everyone who we talked to led us to another person."

Black offered a specific example: "Michael Guillén is an old friend of ours and—once he agreed to be interviewed for the film—he, in turn, referred us to Matthew Kennedy who, in turn, referred us to Andre Soares, the editor of
Alt Film Guide, an on-line film magazine. Andre doesn't appear in our film, but he referred us to Allan Ellenberger who does appear in the film and is also responsible for giving us the footage of Jimmy Bangley, who appears in the film.

"I relate all of that to the way a gay subculture itself gets transmitted. In the film Bernardo Espi and Marc Huestis talk about watching all these old movies on TV in New York and, later, Michael talks about how Bernardo introduced him to Now Voyager at the Castro Theatre, while Marc Huestis has latched on to the reference to Bette Davis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was also an initial point of reference for Matthew Kennedy. The point is: we're not born and raised in gay families and yet—through a chain of personal relationships and cultural osmosis—we get connected to a gay subculture that has seized on these public images (like Bette Davis) hidden in plain sight and used them to consolidate a distinct community identity."

With regard to how difficult it was to secure the multiple film clips used in the documentary—especially with regard to its application to a gay focus—Black explained: "There's a long complicated answer to that; let me think of a quick evasive answer. In 2005 there were guidelines published for documentarians who want to use copyrighted material under the principle of fair use. Fortunately for us, there's a special unit at the Stanford Law School called the Fair Use Project, which vets the claims of documentarians, using these published guidelines from 2005. They do so on a pro bono basis so that filmmakers like Carole and me—who have no money to pay for big-time attorneys—can get their legal advice. We submitted a cut to them and they got our claims of fair use and all the clips are used under the fair use principle."

Curious about whether Bette Davis worked with known gay directors and actors, Black fielded the question to Matthew Kennedy, since Davis worked four times with Edmund Goulding who was well-known for his "pansexual tastes." Kennedy confirmed there were some anecdotal stories about Davis working with Goulding whose bisexuality "was an open secret." "Specifically what he would do," Kennedy described, "is he would enact how he wanted a scene played by actually substituting for a female actor in a love scene. So this was how he got to smooch with Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, and other people that he worked with. There are some accounts of people joking about this technique of his on the set of The Great Lie. I try to imagine this scenario of Goulding saying to an actress, 'I'm going to show you how to play this scene' and then proceeding to stage this same-sex romantic scene with an actor. I would think an actress would be inhibited by seeing a director's re-enactment; but, many actresses said it worked well. There was much praise for this technique. But I've never heard of any other director doing that before or since."

"She had a lot of gay friends," Black added. "When she moved to Los Angeles, she had a gay roommate. That was written about in Ed Sikov's book; but, other authors also mention it. So she had a lot of gay friends. But that didn't stop her from saying bad things about gay people."

Approaching the ambivalency of Bette's performance of femininity in her films where—on one hand—gay male identification with her stages a compliment, while—on the other hand—gay male usage of her becomes a parody of women, possibly even a put-down of women, Black recalled, "In my generation of young gay activists who moved to San Francisco, there was a political argument made against drag precisely because it did seem to be mocking women or, at least, mocking femininity. It also denied a gay identity. It made everything either feminine/women or masculine/men. It didn't allow for a masculine gay man to be attracted to another man."

I added: "What I find interesting about the gendered arguments against an icon like Bette Davis is that it implicates the elasticity of the icon. A very good study could be made of how an icon shifts in meaning with each generation. What Bette Davis meant to gay men in a previous generation—especially with regard to cultural understandings of femininity and masculinity—is perhaps not the same as what she means now within our continually evolving definitions and cultural applications of gender. I object to the masculinization of Bette Davis. It demeans her real success in an industry that—at that time, as I understand it—allowed women to succeed. Everyone's always talking about how women were persecuted at that time; but, actors like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were real stars with real clout within the system. Even if their roles sometimes capitulated to what people expected of women, what we should be admiring or focusing upon is their strength and their success, which—unfortunately—gets capsized into masculinity."

On that note, Carnivele asked Scott O'Brien—author of Virginia Bruce: Under My Skin and Kay Francis: I Can't Wait To Be Forgotten—to comment on Davis's career and how she successfully fought the studio system for independence. "The first screening moment where I felt, 'Oh, there's a Bette Davis line' is from Cabin in the Cotton (1932)," O'Brien recalled, "where Richard Barthelmess flirts with her and she—blonde at that time—says, 'Ah'd love t' kiss ya, but ah jes washed ma hayuh.' She didn't really seem interesting to me until Of Human Bondage (1934). Leslie Howard wanted Ann Harding for that role because Ann had played prostitutes on Broadway several times; but, by then, she had become a gallant lady and she and RKO probably thought Of Human Bondage was not the direction for her to go. So Bette Davis took that role by the horns. At that point she started having some clout with her studio. She was on loan from Warners to RKO for that film. Then she was nominated for Dangerous (1935)—because she'd been overlooked for Of Human Bondage—and because of the clout she had at Warner Brothers, she went on strike. Jimmy Cagney also went on strike, back to back.

"Then another catalyst in her career was the downfall of Warner Brothers top star Kay Francis. Kay wanted a role in a light sophisticated comedy that Warner gave to Claudette Colbert so Kay took Warner Brothers to court and here she was their top star and the highest paid actress in Hollywood. They decided to punish her. She was up for three roles—Dark Victory (1939), The Sisters (1938), and the one role she had campaigned for: Empress Carlotta in Juarez (1939)—and these roles were given to Bette Davis. All of a sudden Bette Davis was able to move into Kay Francis's soap opera turf. The fact that Davis had success in her campaign against Warner Brothers and got these highly-touted roles helped her redefine her career.

"There were two other times she redefined her career. After Beyond the Forest (1949)—with her line 'what a dump'—she got All About Eve (1950), which had been scheduled for Claudette Colbert. Then in 1962 she did Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I see those as the moments that insured her longevity as an icon."

A lot of the reasons given for the popularity of Bette Davis among gay men did not strike one woman as being that different from her popularity with a general audience. She wondered if Bette Davis had become an icon to gay men—not due to her overall popularity—but to its subsequent parody; if the parody wasn't the bonding agent among the gay male community?

Black countered, "That's a very good point. As Anthony Slide says in the documentary, Bette Davis movies were made for a general audience and she was a huge star. Her films were not made for a gay audience. I still think she had a special meaning to the gay community, but I also appreciate that it was her parody that helped solidify her image in the gay community. Someone like Charles Pierce kept Bette Davis alive for many years as the icon in the gay community and he was parodying her. So I understand your point and even agree with it to some extent. As I said earlier, these are images we all own. These are common property. That a particular community grabs onto it and uses it for their own purposes is unavoidable, even though you can say, 'Everyone knows she's a great actress. She's a strong person. She was this and she was that.' There are reasons for everyone to admire that. But that doesn't keep gay men from using her performances for their own purposes, even without parodying it. You can still admire all of that and use it for your own purposes and help create your own community image without parodying it. But, again, I think the parody—through people like Charles Pierce—helped keep her iconicity alive for a couple more decades."

Asked about his editing style, Black explained: "The editing started even before we shot the first footage of Matthew Martin back in August 2008. I had already started working with the film clips. Then we started doing the interviews as well and the editing was going on simultaneously with all the shooting. But when all the interviews got done, Carole and I sat down and independently reviewed every single interview, every second of the interviews, and consulted with each other about what we thought were the salient points that should be in the film somehow, even if it wasn't that person saying that at that time. I had been making notes since the beginning. I had an outline. It was a back-and-forth between the interviews and the narration I was writing and the editing itself that went on for months. There really was some thought to the whole process, though—if you look at the film—it looks rambling in the beginning. The first half of the film doesn't quite have the structure that the second half of the film does; but, that was pretty much deliberate, in the sense that I first wanted to document the phenomenon that there were these gay men who truly are attached to Bette Davis and what that was all about on a phenomenal level. The editing involved a couple hundred hours at least. Other than saying I had an outline and notes and Carole and I conferred, I don't know how to explain exactly how it ended up being what it is."

Asked what Bette Davis meant to him, longtime Davis fan Bernardo Espi replied, "She means a great deal to me. The most important word I can think of is 'liberating.' People of my generation, when we first became aware of Bette Davis it was a liberating factor for us because in most of her roles she showed the struggles that we as gay men were going through and still go through in our daily lives: discrimination, the loss of family, many different things. She brought all that to her roles. What happens, though, as generations see Bette Davis, is that they see the high campiness of her acting and that's mainly brought about by people like Charles Pierce and Matthew Martin. That high campiness is important; but, I also think it's important for gay men to appreciate the fact that in her roles she showed us the struggles that we were going through and how to face those struggles and regain our own self-esteem."

One fellow wanted to know if there were any male icons of comparable stature for the gay male community and I offered, "William Haines was probably an actor that gay males could identify with. Valentino. Ramon Novarro. Primarily I would say actors from the silent era. Concurrent with Davis, I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone. Though, later, actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, even Marlon Brando, introduced an attractive tolerance to their performances."

Naturally, as we were driving home to San Francisco, Matthew Kennedy and I were beleaguered by l'esprit de l'escalier. Kennedy regretted that he had not responded more fully to the issue of parody so I asked him to relay his thoughts. "Bette exists on multiple levels," Kennedy told me. "You can look at her as a great actress. You can look at the body of her work. You can look at her individual films. And you can look at her as this catalyst for gay communion. There's Bette and there's the performance of Bette and they are two different things. To Mike and Carole's credit, they have merged the two within the subject of their documentary. They talk about the phenomenon of Bette as the inspiration of drag and they talk about her as a great actress. But the performance of Bette by non-Bettes becomes the unifying force. The parody of Bette Davis is its own thing; it builds gay community. We can laugh as much as we gather around to appreciate her art. They're separate but connected."

That was, of course, what I was trying to stress by emphasizing the elasticity of an icon, which is not far different from considering the breadth of an image and all it can contain within itself, even if contradictory. For me this is the mysterious spectatorial dimension of film appreciation. Movies are a literal product that projects onto a physical movie screen, yes, but the imagery of films also projects inwardly, subjectively, transliterally, and that intrapsychic effect has equal value—if not more—than narrative structure, the shadow of performance and the interpersonal dynamic of projected image and audience.

I had expected Gary Carnivele to ask me about the importance of Now Voyager as a coming-out story for gay men and what I had given thought to was that the process of coming out itself—long considered the seminal moment of gay self-identification, if not self-acceptance—evolves over generations just as our understanding of cultural icons evolves. In other words, what coming out meant to a gay man in the 1950s is a totally different process than what coming out meant to me in the 1970s and is equally distinct from what coming out means to young queers today, even as they group under the overarching narrative experience of "coming out." Each generation mines cinematic images for their specific relevance within everchanging cultural, historical and temporal parameters. General audiences may have appreciated Bette Davis's performances for their current and popular box office success; gay men may have read into her performances the struggles of their own lives (as Bernardo suggested), especially with regard to the performativity of gender and power; the next wave of gay men may have balanced the artist with her parody; and even later that balance might be necessarily historicized as the building blocks to an increased understanding of the iconic resonance of a singular career. It's an ongoing assessment and reassessment. And, as Matthew Kennedy also suggested, there is no "requirement" that young gay men of this generation gather together around the icon of Bette Davis. But the process of community-building itself, as inflected variously through generations, is of ongoing value. I'm glad to have been part of a document that takes a look at a truly unique approach at community building.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Without question, the online event of the week has been the "For the Love of Film Blogathon" co-hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme at Self-Styled Siren. Greg Farrara has crafted the above introductory Cinema Styles "commercial" (which made me consider how far blogathons have come to now have commercials, let alone Facebook pages). The heart behind this blogathon has, of course, been to advance not only an awareness of film preservation but to solicit contributions as well to the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America's film heritage. NFPF works directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

As "Ferdy" has commented on the blogathon's Facebook page: "We've raised enough to preserve a 1,200-foot black-and-white nitrate silent film in fair condition, starting with lab inspection, cleaning, minor repair, and then moving on to make a new negative and print." So congratulations are in order.

My contribution to the blogathon is a transcription of a January 2008 lecture by Stefan Drössler, the Director of the Munich Film Museum, co-presented by the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) and the Goethe-Institut San Francisco on the restoration of the German premiere version of Max Ophüls' Lola Montès (1955); a print acquired by PFA from a private collection with help from Drössler and the Munich Film Museum. Among the scope of Drössler's many specialties in film history are German cinema, Hollywood cinema (including his leading expertise on Orson Welles) and the history of 3-D, to name just a few. Lola Montès has recently been released on Criterion Blu-Ray with a wealth of extras, including press notes and an essay "Loving Lola" by Gary Giddins so I thought now would be a choice opportunity to share Drössler's PFA commentary. Of related interest are David Hudson's aggregates for both The Greencine Daily (from the 2008 NYFF) and The Auteurs Notebook (on the Criterion release).

Admitting it is always a pleasure to lecture at PFA, Drössler likewise apologized for his modest English. He outlined that he would first discuss the production circumstances behind Lola Montès, followed by 10 minutes worth of production stills from the film, including a survey of the 1950s artwork used for the film's promotion, which might more fully provide insight as to why there was a near riot when the film was first released. Following that would be a separate 12-minute clip reel comparing the different versions of the film, including rarely-seen takes from the American version, the full version of which is now believed to be lost.

The French version of Lola Montès disastrously premiered in Paris on September 22, 1955. Billed as a "super-production", a huge crowd gathered for the premiere, both inside and outside of the cinema. After the film had run no more than a few minutes the audience began to laugh, jeer and shout boos. François Truffaut described that the exiting audience warned those waiting for the next screening not to bother because the film was a disaster. On the night of the first showing the producers, responding to public disdain, immediately began editing the film, which had been produced in Cinemascope with a magnetic sound track. They worked on the sound track to erase certain words, especially one word in a scene early on in the film where Lola (Martine Carol) as a young girl is entering the sleeping cabin of a ship. In the scene she is asked her age and—though in the existing print you can see her lips moving in response—you hear nothing. Originally, her response had been that she was 16 and this is what started the disbelieving laughter in an audience familiar with Martine Carol—long considered the French sex star of the '50s, and far from 16. Carol, in fact, was reputably one of the first French actresses to bare her breasts for the camera, scenes with her were always provocative, and the audiences at Lola Montès were unquestionably there to satisfy their salaciousness.

The German version of the film premiered three months later on January 12, 1956 and, once again, it proved disastrous, though this time the producers explained to the audience that they would be watching a preview print that would be cut and redubbed for general release three weeks later in Germany.

Thus began the unfortunate tale of the long butchering of Ophüls' last film Lola Montès. By the time the film was finally released in America in 1959 under the title The Sins of Lola Montès, its original two-hour length was cut down to 75 minutes, redubbed three times, with the sequential ordering of scenes changed. Unfortunately, all of these edits were done on the original negatives, which has made it extremely difficult to reconstruct the film; but, Drössler felt it important to recapitulate the sad production history of what was the most expensive European film after the second World War. It cost roughly 8 million deutschmarks (roughly $2,000,000), which meant that everyone in France and Germany would have had to go to the theatre and pay an entrance fee just to recover the film's costs. From its inception, it was an ill-fated project engineered by two producers who had no experience in film production; one of them an Italian-French producer Albert Caraco who had made his fortune in Swiss real estate. The other producer was a Nazi who had worked in Paris during the occupation but was unable to continue working in film production in France after the war. He returned to Germany to work in film distribution and made a fortune in bad, cheaply-produced German films. The two men met in Lausanne and began entertaining fantasies of creating a historical drama to rival Hollywood epics. They had no true idea of what they were doing but they began hunting for a property of a known character and came upon the passionate story of Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, better known as her stage name Lola Montez, an infamous cabaret dancer whose numerous affairs included such notable personalities as composer Franz Liszt and Ludwig I, King of Bavaria.

It was clear to them that their film needed to be an international co-production so that it could sell in all the countries. To that effect, they sought out a multilingual European film director. Jacques Tourneur was their first consideration, though Drössler is not sure if they actually contacted him. Michael Powell was their second choice and they contacted him at the Cannes Film Festival. While Powell was pondering the opportunity, the producers decided upon Max Ophüls, who was experienced in shooting films in Germany and then later—during his emigration—in the Netherlands, France, and eventually Hollywood. Ophüls was successful—especially in Germany with his 1950 film La Ronde—not so much for the film's artistic value but its adult themes of illicit love affairs, which passed the German censors only because Ophüls cleverly kept the raciest scenes in French. The producers felt that Ophüls skilled manipulation of censors would be invaluable in their production of Lola Montès.

Despite Ophüls's specific contractual demands that he have complete control over the screenplay, the producers next set their sights on lending their project a spurious air of prestige by finding a literary source upon which the film could be based. To accomplish this, they hired the French bestselling novelist Cecil Saint-Laurent to write a novel about Lola Montez. This is one of the first mysteries of the film. You read in the film's credits that it was based on the novel of Cecil Saint-Laurent but Saint-Laurent didn't write the novel until after the completion of the film. Ophüls wrote his screenplay independently from any novel.

In an interview, Ophüls stated that he had no original interest in directing Lola Montès; but, then he had an idea about a first draft, a treatment, wherein the story would be told as a big circus show so that—in effect—the film would be about show business. The film presents Lola at the end of her career as a performer in a circus with her life rendered in flashbacks. Throughout all the scenes money and business predominate and the film is full of caricatures of producers, by which Ophüls satirized the entertainment industry.

The producers insisted upon making an even bigger film and frequently came up with ideas that Max Ophüls didn't like. He would only agree to their ideas on the conditions that he would be given more money, more extras, and that no limits would be placed on his budget and artistic creativity. The producers wanted the film to be shot in Cinemascope and—though Ophüls didn't like the wide screen—he agreed to the condition but created a cinematographic design that frequently cut the wide screen through the use of side curtains and iris-like effects that reduced the horizontal image. The producers also wanted to shoot the film in color. At that time there were very few film productions in color. Again, Ophüls was in disagreement with the usage of color but circumvented the condition by creatively resisting a realistic usage of color and designing a concept of using special colors for each flashback sequence to indicate seasonal episodes. This necessitated the painting of houses and streets, separate costumes, to conform to his color concepts. The producers wanted to use a magnetic sound track, which Ophüls hated. He used only the front channels instead of the wide channels and decided to use overlapping soundtracks so that people in the foreground were talking as well as people in the background. Often you cannot understand everything everyone is saying. You can only understand the words Ophüls deemed especially important. Though this became a technique used by later filmmakers, at the time it proved confusing to audiences. Finally, the producers wanted to use Martine Carol, the sex star, which he agreed to but you can see what he did with her. There was a sequence where Carol rips open her dress, which the audience was anxiously awaiting, and Ophüls cuts away in a manner that proves comic. In retrospect one can see how brilliantly Ophüls was playfully frustrating audience expectations. Even the flashback structure has no logical sense. It's never made clear why they are not in chronological order; but, this was important for Ophüls and he insisted upon it. Ophüls' stormy relationship with his producers informed his creativity in such a way that—as Rodney Hill states it in his Senses of Cinema essay—"one of the core principles of auteur criticism is that a great director will turn such practical hardships to artistic advantage."

The final piece to this production history, which is less well known, is that the film was shot in three different languages. In the 1930s, before magnetic tapes were invented, sound was recorded on disks. It was difficult to dub a film so separate Italian, German and French versions of a film were made. Even though in the 1950s magnetic tape had come into use, it remained exceedingly difficult to match color negatives and so the practice of filming multiple versions of a film in separate languages persisted. Ophüls elected to shoot Lola Montès three times; once in English, once in French, once in German. This fact determined the selection of the actors. Fortunately Peter Ustinov was multilingual but Martine Carol was not as accomplished and so Ophüls had a lot of problems with her. She was completely dubbed in the English version and partially in the German.

The shooting of Lola Montès took place in the summer of 1955 over five months, beginning in France, with the last four weeks in Munich where the circus sequences were filmed. The film was set in a circus arena and—though there existed a circus arena in Munich—Ophüls insisted on building his own, which was so immense that it had space for 2,000 people. It was built at the Bavaria studios and cost a fortune, especially because Ophüls did not want to hire extras for the circus. He hired an actual circus that had a hundred animals, many of which you never see in the film. If you're lucky you see a few horses and the edge of a polar bear. For his circus audience he photographed extras that he positioned in the bleachers, some of them with moveable arms, and with some live actors inbetween. This process ended up being much more expensive than if he had hired extras.

Max Ophüls is well-known for his long tracking shots, a strategy he devised partially to keep producers from cutting his films. He used the same strategy in the circus sequences of Lola Montès and what is of interest is that you can actually see the tracks in some of the scenes only partially covered by carpeting.

There were many complications during the shoot. At one point Martine Carol went on strike because the producers had trouble securing the money to pay her. During one of Ophüls' color schematics, an owner of a house refused to allow the production company to paint his house red, so they had to make do by draping it in red fabric. For one sequence set in the Munich gardens, 1000 extras were employed for a scene that lasted no more than 30 seconds in the finished film. Since production was frequently postponed, Ophüls could not transfer the company to the high Alps to film the winter sequences so they re-created winter in Hamburg by using salt for snow, causing much architectural damage.

For much of the press photos used to publicize the film to generate interest for its premiere, Martine Carol's breasts were exposed. These are all scenes, some with very daring costumes, which do not appear in the finished film.

In the original film, the credits came first, then the circus, then the flashbacks of Lola's life; but, in the American version, the story was re-sequenced in chronological order so that the circus came last. Ophüls was outraged knowing the producers intended to do this and did everything he could to prevent them from editing his film, but to no avail. His death by heart attack in March 1957 saved him the disgrace of seeing the American version.

The remainder of Drössler's presentation was a fascinating and detailed comparison of various existing versions of the film that underscored the obstacles encountered in reconstructing the film: jumpcuts that were made to shorten the film that interfered with both visual and aural continuity; lefthand cropping of the original cinemascope ratio effected to enchance sound; aesthetic decisions on the part of Ophüls to grade the film darker in the positive print than its original negative, requiring reconstructionists to debate whether or not to use a negative or positive print and the ethical concerns of whether reconstructionists have the right to make a film look better than the author's intent. The reconstruction of Max Ophüls Lola Montès is the first to be completely done in high definition with a Dolby soundtrack. Drössler lobbied against a Dolby digital soundtrack to retain the sound of the film's original magnetic soundtrack, again believing reconstructionists do not have the right to make something sound clearer than Ophüls intended. I'm not sure how much of the reconstruction is detailed in Criterion's Blu-Ray release. I strongly recommend Dinko Tucakovic's FIPRESCI write-up from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

3RD I—The Jewish Leading Ladies of Indian Cinema

Time to mix it up, ladies and gentlemen. In conjunction with the Jewish Community Center, 3rd i presents a multi-media panel discussion with documentarian Eric Molinsky, Professor Deborah Stein and 3rd i's own Anuj Vaidya, who will bring us back to the era of Indian silent cinema when many of its leading ladies were Jewish, Parsi, Anglo-Indian and Australian (Remember Fearless Nadia!). Gain insight into a little known chapter of Bollywood and find out how these women became the "go-to girls" for leading female roles in the 1920s, 30s, and beyond.

When: Friday, February 19, 2009, 7:30PM
Where: Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF), 3200 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94118
Cost: $10 (Tickets for dinner + talk: $30; use the following code for discounted price: 3rdI; Tickets are also available at the door.)

PSIFF10: DONKEY (KENJAC, 2009)—The Evening Class Interview With Antonio Nuić

Not since Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) has an animal eye witnessed the pitiful plight of human beings with such patient compassion, as in Antonio Nuić's sophomore feature Donkey (Kenjac, 2009), which saw its US premiere at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF10). As synopsized in the festival program, this gentle comic fable shows how one family of mulish, macho men in the Herzogovina countryside ultimately gain some much-needed self-awareness—with the help of a real donkey. Director Antonio Nuić accompanied his film to PSIFF10.

Born in Sarajevo in 1977, Nuić graduated in film and TV directing from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb. He is a member of the Croatian Film Directors Society. In 1998, his first short film On the Spot won awards at the Croatian student film festival FRKA for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Audience Choice Award. His television drama Give Them Dinamo Back fared similarly at FRKA, winning the Audience Award. From 1999-2004, Nuić directed television shows, music videos and his third short film Sex, Booze and Short Fuse. In 2005–2006, All For Free—his first feature length film—won multiple awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress at Croatia's Pula Film Festival. At the Sarajevo Film Festival, All For Free won the Heart of Sarajevo for Best Male Performance. It likewise garnered a Special jury award at the New Author Festival in Belgrade and the Bronze Rosa Camuna in Bergamo.

Nuić's second feature Donkey has followed suit, winning three Golden Arena awards at the Pula Film Festival: Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography; and Best Music. It also received the Croatian Film Critics Society Award and, consequently, was chosen as Croatia's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®. Although Donkey did not make the Academy short list, it remains one of my favorites seen at this year's festival. My sincere thanks to Jonah Blechman of inclusive pr for setting me up to interview Nuić over drinks at Miro's Restaurant. Nuić is a ruggedly handsome, affable fellow with a rumbling voice deepened by chain smoking.

* * *
Michael Guillén: Donkey is a beautiful, elegant narrative about the grief shared between fathers and sons. Straight off, I was impressed with its bleached cinematography. Can you speak about how you worked with your cinematographer to develop the look of the film?

Antonio Nuić: The cinematographer
Mirko Pivčević is a great friend of mine and obviously a very talented person. When we were location scouting, we discussed the script and the way the film should look. What we came up with—because he lives near those parts of the country where the film takes place—was his remembrance of how sometimes at the beginning of August everything goes yellow because there's no water, as if it's Autumn, not Summer. The land is already dry and rocky and the intense heat creates a bleached look. There is no green. That was my idea of how the film should look—strong highlights and no green—because green represents life, whereas when something is yellow, it represents the time of the year when everything dies back down. I believe that look was important for this story.

Also, one of my personal motivations for that look came from a famous Croatian poet who came from the village where the film takes place and in his poetry, the color that he used to describe sadness was yellow. It made sense to me to go this way.

Guillén: Could you identify that poet?

Nuić: His name is
Antun Branko Šimić. He was a great poet at the beginning of the 20th Century. He wrote expressionist poetry that was current with European literature of the time. He died very young, actually, when he was 27 years old; but, he managed to become part of Croatian poetic history with only a few collected books of poems.

Guillén: Donkey is bolstered by its poetic influences. It's amazingly simple on the surface; but, underneath there's much inherited grief and a tragic sense of generational repetition. It intrigued me to watch Boro (Nebojša Glogovac) come hazardously close to repeating the mistakes of his father. Are you a father yourself?

Nuić: That's what made me think about the father/son relationship. As I grow older, obviously I see myself making the same mistakes my father made, especially with regard to his relationship with my mother. They're still married and live a good life; but, I see his character flaws. We like to call them "character flaws" but really it's just bad behavior based upon not thinking about the other person—whoever you live with or whoever your friends are—you rationalize, "That's just the way I am." Whereas, a man should think about, "Why do I tell people this is the way I am when I can change?" That's what most men don't do and, basically, in Croatia there is a traditional way of raising male children. Boys are allowed to do things their own way. It's considered a good thing and it makes families proud—that way of thinking—but as a consequence sons don't get a good upbringing. It's an unrealistic way of looking at things. Men expect things to go the way they imagine things should go. As time goes along and things change, my generation of Croatian men are very much in conflict with their surroundings and their female partners, male partners, whatever, because they can't accept that there are other people and other ways of thinking. We've been basically brought up that way.

I was raised by my grandmother and—as she was feeding me—she used to say, "Son, it's best never to have one wife. Always two, possibly three." Brought up that way, a man thinks he can get anything he wants. Now, I love my grandmother, I love my grandfather, and obviously they love me; but, this is the way men are raised in Croatia and throughout the Balkans. That's what I was thinking about when I drafted the script for Donkey.

Guillén: You were wanting to critique the existing practice of how men are raised?

Nuić: Yes. The basic idea is that we usually repeat the mistakes of our fathers whereas we should learn from their mistakes and not repeat them. My film critiques that behavior because such behavior leads to larger conflicts and damages future generations.

Guillén: Are you saying that this is still pretty much how Croatian men are raised today?

Nuić: Yes. It's changing a little bit now with my generation and their children; but, in some parts—those communities close to the Dalmatian Coast, for example—this still happens, though on a much smaller scale than before.

Guillén: Though I'm aware that your film is critiquing masculinities in the region, I admire that Donkey likewise explores the conflicted emotionality of these men. The story that spoke most to me was that of Ante (Ljubo Kapor), Boro's uncle. His realization at film's end of what it has truthfully cost he and his wife not to have children—collecting money instead—carried such sad weight.

Donkey won three awards at Croatia's Pula Film Festival: you won Best Screenplay; Mirko Pivčević won Best Cinematography; and
Srdjan Gulic Gul won Best Music. Then the film was chosen as Croatia's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®. Despite this critical success, how have your local audiences accepted the critique in your film?

Nuić: Very well. I'm always afraid, obviously, as a filmmaker. Whenever I make something, I ask myself, "Who will watch this? Who will be interested in some small family drama set in some rural part of the country? Does it communicate?" You might know that there are many different dialects in the Croatian language. The people in the South—who were influenced by Italy—speak totally different than the people in the North, who were influenced by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. If you pair an older guy from the Northern part of Croatia with an older guy from the Southern part, they won't understand a word each other is saying. I kept a lot of those dialects in the film and I worried, "What have I done? Who will this talk to? What am I talking about?" But, basically, people have loved the film, especially the people from the South who have told me, "This is it. This is us." That was very flattering to me because my father comes from that part of the country, I know those people, and I wanted them to see themselves in my film. It's not very common to make a film about these Southerners. There aren't many films in Croatia that have been made in that part of the country about the people in that part of the country.

Everywhere else people loved the basic relationship between the father and his son. Just before my trip here to Palm Springs, a guy I know came to me and told me, "I've just seen your film and it helped me. After seeing your film, I went and had a conversation with my father that I have put off for such a long time because we were in conflict." I think people got the point and they love the point that men should simply communicate.

Guillén: Equally fascinating for me was the role of the donkey in furthering that communication. I'm aware that kenjac—the Croatian word for donkey—is pejorative slang for a man who is mule-headed; i.e., an ass. But you've distinguished in your press notes that you wouldn't call a donkey an ass. I've noticed where these masculine issues come into play that—if a woman does not help a man come to terms with himself—an animal will. [Nuić chuckles.] I have to commend the different ways you showed your male characters relating through the donkey to themselves and to others. The donkey became—how do I put this?—a witness to these various self-examinations, if you will. He actually became the agent who brought these estranged men together.

Nuić: It's almost as if he's their silent priest. These are religious people who—when they go to confession—communicate with their priest. But here they choose to confess to an animal because, obviously, they don't want to hear an answer. They already know and are aware of the answer. They're just so stubborn and into themselves that they can't communicate with another human being with whom they have any issues. They would rather just get it out of themselves, vent, by communicating with a donkey. The donkey becomes someone who takes all their problems unto himself and he can bear it because donkeys are famous for carrying heavy loads on their backs.

Guillén: How much has or hasn't changed with regard to men's perception and respect of women?

Nuić: You mean in Croatia?

Guillén: Yes, in Croatia, but also between the city and the countryside in Croatia.

Nuić: I can assure you that women in those parts of Croatia are pretty powerful in their own way. They know how to handle things—let's say—quietly. They willingly take this role of being humble and being servile to their husband; but, basically they rule everything. Croatia is a maternal country. But I'm not a woman so I cannot say how women feel in Croatia. I don't see anything different from any other European country.

Guillén: As the writer/director, can you say where this story came from?

Nuić: I had already written something about a father and son relationship when I heard about the trading of donkeys, which was told to me by my cousin Boro who lives in Drinovci. He told me that this uncle Ante—who is based on a real person—sold donkeys to people from across the border who then sold them to Italians to make sausages; some mortadella is made from donkeys. That anecdote helped me decide to set my father-son relationship in Drinovci. That village is the birthplace of my father. I knew the people. I knew their characters. I knew what I was being told when I heard that anecdote. That's how I came up with the story.

Guillén: Along with the trafficking of donkeys, your film mentions a lucrative cigarette trade, yet no one smokes in this film. I've been to the former Yugoslavia and I don't remember anyplace where people weren't smoking.

Nuić: [Laughs.] Yes, we do smoke a lot. I don't know quite how to explain to you why I decided not to show smoking in the film. I'm a chain smoker myself. Perhaps I could say that it was very hot when we shot the film and—when some of the older actors wanted to smoke—I suggested they not do so because I was afraid for their health. Also, I found no reason for the characters to smoke. Besides, it's a common thing in Croatian films—or in European films generally—that everybody smokes so I simply decided not to do it.

Guillén: Can you speak to why you situated your narrative against the political context of 1995? You've suggested in your press notes that this timing was chosen for two reasons: first, to juxtapose family conflicts against historical events and, second, to respect a certain authenticity; i.e., it was in the summer of 1995 that donkey trafficking actually took place.

Nuić: That's right. Also, 1995—the year when the film takes place; the year of
Operation Storm—is the year when the war ended in Croatia. It lasted for a few months more in Bosnia; but, basically 1995 is considered the end of our civil war, which took place in Bosnia-Herzogovina. The village Drinovci is in Herzogovina, which borders Croatia. It's so stupid and difficult to explain because the majority of the population living in Herzogovina are Croats.

At the beginning of the film when Boro and his family cross the border you see two identical flags on both sides. That could be confusing to someone who doesn't know the situation; but, that was supposed to be funny. During those war years Herzogovina and Croatia were technically two separate countries; but, they weren't really.

That border was used to make enormous sums of money through custom fees. Speaking of the cigarette trade, Croatia passed a law that set taxes on cigarettes—let's say 10%—whereas Herzogovina set the taxes at 5%. So, Croatia would export cigarettes to Herzogovina and then the law would be killed for a few days during which time cigarettes would be brought back into Croatia, thus making millions of dollars for one or two men. That was the situation we had. It resembles something your country did back when the west was won; but, unfortunately for us, it was at the end of the 20th century.

Guillén: Srdjan Gulic Gul won Best Music at Croatia's Pula Film Festival. He used a mix of both pop and classical. Why?

Nuić: The pop song was kind of an inside joke. It's a song that's been popular in Croatia for over 20 years and which—if translated—means "Long Hot Summer". Classical music was in the mix because—as you could see—Boro's aunt loved classical music. And I love classical music, to be honest with you. I love classical music in film. I think film and classical music have a lot in common and they complement each other.

Guillén: Which American directors do you like?

Nuić: American directors? I could go on for about an hour, right? But I'm a great admirer of classic Hollywood. I like Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra. For recent directors, P.T. Anderson I like. Scorsese, obviously, I like. Wes Anderson I like. Clint Eastwood I like. I'm a great admirer of American culture and I was brought up especially on westerns. My mother took me to see them at the cinematheque twice a week. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my favorite films.

Guillén: How did you feel having your film chosen as Croatia's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®?

Nuić: I was really flattered by their decision. And it's been great getting to come here to Palm Springs. I love seeing my film in a US theater because—as I just mentioned—I was brought up on classic Hollywood cinematography. My mother loved classic American films so she took me to see them at the cinema, twice a week at least, whenever the film changed at our Cineplex. So I was brought up watching American films. I'm very much influenced by them. The fact that my film is being shown in a US cinema is very exciting for me.

Guillén: Can you tell me a little bit about your actors and their backgrounds?

Nuić: My actors are well-known actors who all come from the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. We have trained at similar—if not the same—acting schools. The main actor Nebojša Glogovac (Boro) comes from Belgrade. The main actress Nataša Janjić (Jasna, Boro's wife) and some of the other actors are from Zagreb. The guy in the wheelchair Emir Hadžihafizbegović (Petar, Boro's brother) is from Sarajevo. I like working with actors from different acting schools because I think something good happens. Actors are intuitive and they pick up all the good things from their colleagues. I like working with actors from all over. It may sound funny to you because it's such a small region but it's not conventional. You don't ordinarily see Bosnian actors in Croatian films; but, I tend to mix them all together, which is rather unconventional, at least in the last 20 years in our country.

Guillén: To wrap things up here, let's discuss Krenica, the lake in Drinovci, which you've indicated represents a kind of doom for the villagers. I was struck by the image of Boro's wife nearly drowning herself in the lake much like his mother had earlier "let herself go." Then there was also that scene where Ante throws his money into the lake. What does this lake Krenica represent for you in your film?

Nuić: Okay, there is a story about that lake, which is a very strange lake. When I was a kid, every Summer we went to Drinovci and we all swam in that lake several times even though it was considered somewhat dangerous. The story about the drowned boy is, unfortunately, a true story. It seemed like every other Summer somebody drowned in that lake. It has unpredictable currents with very cold water. Though most of the water in the lake is perfectly warm and perfect for swimming when it's hot, an unexpected current of cold water can hit you and you can have a heart attack. So, more accurately, people don't die by drowning in that lake; they die of heart attacks and many of them have never been found. The divers that you saw in the film diving for the boy in the lake in real life dove for three days and never found him. They dove 80 meters below the surface and never found the bottom of the lake. Since it's rocky terrain and the sea is nearby, a week later Krenica spit up the drowned boy and he had salt water in his lungs.

Krenica is associated with local mythology. The legend goes that a very powerful man was riding drunk on his horse. He was dissatisfied with his life. He rounded up all of his horses and they jumped into a pit, creating the lake. This lake is haunted by fate. It represents life because the water is pure, people can drink from the lake, and it provides the watering system for that village; but, also, it represents death because it can take away everything you love. It's the pure symbolism of the water that represents life in such a rocky terrain. It gives life. It takes life. That's what I had in mind.

Guillén: You've added in the press notes that the disregard of Krenica's actual danger renders "a deeply irrational, dark side of the people from Herzegovina, otherwise extremely religious and cautious people." Final question: Are you working on anything new?

Nuić: Yes, I am writing a new script based on a theater play. It's a Christmas tale that was turned into a theater piece. I saw it and I was lucky because the guy who wrote it was asked by a few other directors for permission to turn it into a film but he rejected their offers. I met him on the street one day in Zagreb and I asked him what was happening with the script and why hadn't it been made into a film? He said, "Would you like to do it?" I said, "Yes!" That's how I got the rights. We know each other from the Academy. We studied together. So basically, right now I'm in the process of writing the script from his play. It's beautiful. My films are always about family and this is about the relationship between two brothers. It's pretty much a chamber piece that happens in an old barber shop on Christmas Eve.

Cross-published on