Wednesday, March 21, 2018

THE DARK SIDE OF THE DREAM—A Conversation with Donald Malcolm

Courtesy of Midcentury Productions
"Dangerous clowns, balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions they have been handed day by day generations on down."—Joni Mitchell.

The slackened tolerance of the jaundiced eye. One might describe our collective perspective as spectactors weary of watching the shenanigans of our contemporary political circus. The ringmaster is, without question, sociopathic, and at least mentally ill. The clowns are horrifying as they tumble over each other pocketing lobbied bribes. There isn't a single act of daring that isn't buffered by advantageously-situated economic nets and tax cuts. And a good third of the audience under the big top have salted peanuts for brains and sawdust in their ears. What kind of a circus is this anyways? When I was a little boy I dreamt of running away with every circus that came through the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho. Now every town in America finds itself trapped within this insane circus, as if unable to wake from a dark dream, and our impulse has become a concerted effort to escape the impending danger of this three-ring fiasco.

This weekend at San Francisco's Roxie Theater veteran programmer Elliot Lavine (who nearly singlehandedly invigorated interest in pre-Code, maudit and noir films) and his renegade collaborator Donald Malcolm (of Midcentury Productions) have joined forces to present a suite of films grouped under the aegis "The Dark Side of the Dream"—"subversive cinema for subversive times"—kicking off Friday night, March 23, 2018 and continuing for four nights of double-bills that test whether knowing our history will actually keep us from repeating it. San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleague Pam Grady has written up "The Dark Side of the Dream" for the Pink Section of the San Francisco Chronicle, detailing its programming and conversing with Elliot Lavine. I spoke with Donald Malcolm late last year inbetween the fourth edition of his French noir series and his second go at "Agitprop" to discuss the activist impulses shaping Midcentury Productions' programming efforts, which track directly to this weekend's series. Ducking into the Sunflower next to the Roxie we suffered no fools while gobbling down ph'o.

* * *

Photo: © Michael Guillén.  All rights reserved.
Michael Guillén: I'm impressed with Midcentury Productions and how it has grown since last we talked. Has San Francisco been receptive to your programming?

Donald Malcolm: It's been very gratifying. It's been a little tricky. We had a sweet spot the first couple of years with "The French Had A Name For It" because Mick LaSalle wrote about us for the Chronicle. But I think he had a little trouble with how we expanded the third edition. He couldn't quite get his arms around it to write about it. He was going to write up our fourth edition but a number of things came up, as they often do in that nether world that you know so well.

Guillén: Yet aside from the four editions of "The French Had A Name For It", Midcentury has diversified its programming to initiate "Agitprop", now in its second run. What inspired your sense that it was time for folks to re-watch these films? Anticipating the series, I just watched Peter Watkins' Punishment Park (1971), a movie recommended to me by Bruce Fletcher a few years back, and was stunned by how it held up and how it managed to be a hell of a lot more interesting than most of the new films opening up on Oscar® track. By contrast, Punishment Park is a movie that most concerned citizens should really be watching right now. 

Malcolm: It certainly is! How well that turns out is one of the interesting problems. The idea of "Agitprop" first came to me after the election. The election was a calamitous event and could still well turn out to be one of the most tragic events in the history of the world. We might, if we're very lucky, escape the worst effects of it. We have to try to be optimistic. We have to operate on the principle of hope that we can turn this around.

Guillén: Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot's comment that for us there is only the trying and the rest is not our business.

Malcolm: Although I'm not sure which side of this argument T.S. would actually end up being on if he were here with us today, unfortunately; his greatness as a poet notwithstanding.

Guillén: So it was the election then, as I suspected, that gave you the idea to program a series focusing on the effects of propaganda.

Malcolm: That, and because of our noir orientation, there's a whole series of films that don't get shown a lot in that area, one of which was in our first "Agitprop"—Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947). These films were shown but then as we got into this official "reign of error", nobody was stepping up with this material as part of what needs to be done to bring the people to a level of consciousness to resist this stuff and do something about it.

You can ask the question as to how pertinent this material is, but it's pertinent because the history of America has many episodes that are similar to what we're dealing with now, obviously. We need to learn from those earlier episodes. We need to go back and see how other people addressed those issues, how they dealt with them, how things turned out, and all of that. That was the basis of the original "Agitprop."

Guillén: In the inaugural edition of "Agitprop" you screened Crossfire, John Reinhardt's Open Secret (1948), and an episode from the television series The Defenders

Malcolm: It was a pretty good program. I wish we could find a way to get the rest of the episodes of The Defenders out because nobody really remembers the show. Nobody except certain exalted individuals.

Guillén: We're just called "old people" these days. 

Malcolm: Those people who were very impressionable at a young age and saw the show when it was on in 1961-1965. That would mean you and me and—well, I'm sure there are many others—but it resonated with a small group of people and, unfortunately, due to the vagaries of syndication, The Defenders got lost in the shuffle. If we could see the later episodes of that show, we would have a great framework from which to operate on many issues that continue to be muddled and messed with today.

Guillén: It was a cultural moment when the mediation of television entered our homes and became essential for the ways that information was disseminated. 

Malcolm: True.

Guillén: Now there might be more of a struggle with the essential nature of television, other than for HBO (which I believe has truly great programming), because there is too much programming, a viewer is stymied by complete overchoice, and the cellphone (I suspect) has replaced the television as the main device of disseminating information because of the illusion that it is somehow under our control and determined by our choice; an issue I've become concerned about these days as I meet more and more young people who do not have a solid understanding of direct experience and instead have been raised on the idea of aggregated experience or accessed experience.

Malcolm: That's what happens when consumerism runs rampant and becomes an 800 pound gorilla, which is what has happened to us. Although that was obviously in the works at the time we were growing up and watching three networks, this is the perfect storm model of it, if you will. I think you're absolutely right. Having so much choice makes it harder to get people to focus, which is why we're trying to get people back into the theaters to watch these films, because it's a collective experience that makes a difference. As horrible as the fate that occurs to the protagonists of Punishment Park, individuals have no chance compared to a group of people who might actually have a set of strategies or ideas of how to proceed only to discover that they're outgunned by Big Brother. Punishment Park is a cautionary tale but it needs to be seen in the light of what do we do about that? And how do we address that? So that when we move forward we might have a society that doesn't have that element in it.

Guillén: Punishment Park when it came out proposed an uchronie, or alternate history.... 

Malcolm: Yes.

Guillén: But actually it has ended up being not so much an alternate history but a current perspective of history.

Malcolm: Yes. I think that the films that we're showing in "Agitprop 2" deal with prescient politics in film.

Guillén: Television, being the medium that it was when it was, admittedly helped people like you and I learn how to think about some of the pressing social issues of the time. Mom used TV as a babysitter but—once she sat me down in front of the television set and walked away—it was my viewing habits that helped to make a composite image of that babysitter. What I chose to watch were films and made-for-television programming that I realize now, in retrospect, were either catering to a spirit of resistance characteristic of the time, or to a fledgling sexuality I didn't even know I had. 

Malcolm: They sure as heck wouldn't let that happen today, now would they?

Guillén: No, in fact "they" are trying to do the opposite. They're trying to not only remove pieces of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art but trying to reconfigure an appreciation of art. I found it astonishing that "they" secured 10,000 signatures to have certain paintings removed for violating new standards of decency. I want to believe that this is impossible and yet 10,000 people agreed that these paintings should be removed. 

Punishment Park is so full of provocative ideas. Its script is rich with definitions. I never knew where the word "chauvinism" came from and yet here is a film that tosses its definition out as part of its dialogue. Perhaps this only strikes me as remarkable because we have been effectively dumbed down as a society, so that the progressive ideas that could have led us to a purposeful resistance are now difficult to comprehend and grasp, let alone implement. Per my earlier argument, the critical thinking born from trial and error and direct experience has been diluted by the technological allure of easy access. Nowadays you don't really have to know how to think critically, you just have to know how to Google. And the really astounding thing is that I can't say that Punishment Park is dated. It's 40 years old, and yet it's not. It's the most relevant piece of film I've seen this season. Despite its similar premise, Hunger Games was pallid by comparison, clothed in special effects and costumes to, in effect, encourage passivity. 

Malcolm: And, moreover, was determined, which has become my favorite word for the way we live, which is that all these new TV shows have extended the narrative to allow hours and hours of binge watching. All of those characters in all of those stories are over-determined in order to be able to keep you in a certain mode of emotion that doesn't end up leading you anywhere. As if Aristotle had decided that drama could be something that just stopped without catharsis. These shows induce determined emotions that never get resolved, let alone never having any real purpose.

Guillén: I get your point, or your caution, but I'm more of a psychological person so I'm not as concerned with dramatic catharsis as I am with the idea that narrative seriality allows a character to flesh out into someone more recognizably human.

Malcolm: Well, they can; but, that form often obviates that and makes it something less or puts it into a particular track where there's no real surprise as to what's going to happen except it's going to be worse. This is part of the undercurrent of a world that has probably internalized too much noir and—rather than seeing noir as a cautionary momentum—see it as an entertainment. I can't disparage noir completely because I've spent so much time with it. I do have to say that when Chris Fujiwara talked about the adolescent undercurrents of noir, he's got a real point. You have to step away from it and not be so captured by it.

Guillén: You have to recognize its style, yet discern the substance within its style. Your programming gives audiences an opportunity to make that distinction. You provide not only a context, but a broadened context, which points out that noir has been thought of as this, but it can also be thought of as that. You show not only what noir can alternately be, but what it alternately is

Malcolm: What we discovered was that French noir was actually the first noir. It certainly begins accidentally when Jean Renoir decides he wants to adapt a Georges Simenon Maigret novel (La Nuit du carrefour, 1932) and sort of stumbles into everything that everybody now considers to be the attributes of film noir. Of course, it's something different because it was an accident, but it's all there. The interesting thing is that he looked at it and said, "Now, that was fun. Let's go do something else." He left it alone and never went back to it. But other people like Jean Grémillon, Julien Duvivier and Pierre Chenal—who is probably the key missing link in that early period—they were captivated by that tone and the whole combination of style, substance and the undercurrent of decadence that had been looked at from a different angle than maybe it had been in previous literature. In other words, we're not taking the fin de siècles and making noirs out of them. We're bringing it forward into a world where decadence is more mundane, but more prevalent. And not as an aesthetic statement, but just a fact of life.

That's basically where noir began and, interestingly enough, because of the unique historical events that happened in France, they ended up creating more sub-genres that are different than anything we see in noir anywhere else. During the occupation period, you have to take noir out of the city and take it into a small town in order to place the story in an allegorical way. That's exactly what they did. They created a subgenre that certain of the critics knew and called "provincial gothic". The richness of the expanded idea of noir that has started to develop in the last 10 years comes from the fact that the French were doing that first. A lot of other people picked up on that and brought those elements in and combined it all into this stew, this bouillabaisse of dark film, whether it was melodrama, hard-boiled or gothic fantasy, whatever genre. These things would work. They would resonate within that structure.

France has more subgenres that are more interesting and lead you into some very strange worlds. There's of course the fact that they believed in their writers more. One of the charts that we put up in the fourth edition of "The French Have A Name For It" that we just did in November (2017) was what we called the writer-director matrix. On one plane you have the directors stand out on the X axis. The writers are on the Y axis and the chart shows how many of those guys worked together. You can see some who were consistent collaborators, as opposed to the Hollywood system where they would put three or four writers on something and it would turn into a different kind of a stew. 

Guillén: Noir by committee? 

Malcolm: That was very seldom the case in France. There was much more of an artisanal approach in France that involved the writer having that kind of respect of being one of the key elements. Obviously, one of the great examples of that is Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné, but there are dozens more that just aren't well-known because the material—as we've said before—was mothballed for various reasons that we've already discussed.

Guillén: Recently, Joel Shepard of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts advised me that YBCA was running a program of Chinese Noir. It doesn't sound right somehow, yet I'm intrigued how this appellation "noir" is being applied to national cinemas, nation by nation. Is this an urban phenomenon? The process of modernization? Imitation being the best form of flattery? I don't know if anyone has done a chart that shows how noir has developed sequentially in national cinemas? 

Malcolm: I don't think we're far enough along to be able to do that.

Guillén: In some ways your programming is helping to expand the definition of noir, which strikes me as, perhaps, a necessary impulse. As an umbrella term "noir" is becoming a more expansive term. 

Malcolm: One of the things that happened as I was editing the Noir City Magazine for eight years was that access to all kinds of different people ended up taking things in very unusual directions. It wasn't so much finding good writers—which there are many and we were fortunate to find many of them and bring them in—but it was finding the people who were finding these films who opened up this path to films that had simply been lost. The internet might have helped with that because there were people on IMDb in France who were way ahead of anybody on this and were providing material information to us. The ways that the films were being found and brought to cinephiles, making them available with subtitles, all just mushroomed. It was just so interesting that at the time that I left the magazine, Eddie Muller did his international festival, which was actually the greatest hits of the mostly-known universe. There's an exception and I want to make sure that I credit Eddie: the Argentine area was a great area of discovery. Pierre Chenal, of course, was down there and was part of creating that; but, still, there's no good history of that. We've seen maybe seven or eight of those films but there are many more.

There are people who are interested in monetizing these films, companies like Rialto and Cohen Media bring over films from foreign countries and masterpiece them, put ribbons around them, and send them out into the world of repertory cinemas around the country. That's all well and good, I guess, but I've come to not like that model much. I like the model of the festival approach where you get as much of this material as possible out in front of the people so that they can understand how much there is. This unitary one-by-one thing seems to me to end up defending the known canon against the possibility that we really don't understand the full nature of film history yet, which to me is the exciting possibility. Especially within the bailiwick of French film, we have all this material that has simply been kicked to the curb that has not been analyzed, evaluated or even seen or experienced for 50 years.

Guillén: That's one of the things I admire most about your programming: you're getting these films back out in front of audiences by way of curated festival exhibition. As obscure films surface to my attention, I can be at home watching them on my curved 70" TV screen and I actually love watching movies that way. As a critic it's a great way to watch a movie because you can interrupt it to take notes. But if I've seen a movie I've really liked on one of the myriad streaming platforms now available, my first honest impulse is: "Where can I see this movie projected as it was originally meant to be seen? Where can I see it with other people?" For me, there's a paracinematic quality that happens within an audience watching a projected film that lends to the film's appropriate expression. The group response of the audience is like a vibration that feeds back into the film. That's one of the reasons I'm so excited to watch Punishment Park in your "Agitprop 2" series, because as I was watching it at home it kept startling me, and I want to feel how an audience will be startled.

Malcolm: To get back to the impetus of "Agitprop" for a second because that's a good way to segue into it, I would like to have seen social justice noirs shown on inauguration weekend. We made a few efforts to do that in the context of a very famous film noir festival, but it didn't happen. I spent some time looking back at the history of political filmmaking and seeing how it had changed. As you know, Midcentury Productions was set up because I discovered that there were so many great films in what is the most explosive, creative and concentrated period of filmmaking. There's much more filmmaking going on now, but in terms of what people were doing and the ways they were going about it, you can't beat that time frame in my mind. The problem is that—because we didn't do a good job at collating and putting those films away so that they would be easy to find—we lost a lot of the films that were truly startling and interesting. Obviously, Punishment Park has been around but it has never achieved the platform where it could have the most influence. Originally my thought was that I just wanted to show these social justice noirs but I'm not really in the position, given my niche in this odd little subworld of programming, to be doing that without it creating too many ripples as it is. There are too many other people who have turf issues in that area.

The one that I really wanted to show, however, the most important one to me in that group of social justice noirs, is Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil (1948), both because of the commentary within the film and the idea that it was describing something about our country entering recklessly into a zone of evil. The film should have been shown on June 14 because that's Trump's birthday and, ironically, Flag Day; but, there were no takers.

I didn't want to show the film in April at the first "Agitprop" because I wanted to focus on different issues. I also got the idea that I wanted to do the thing with The Defenders and get people to sign a petition and see if we could get Shout Factory and the others to put DVDs of the series out. I feel that once those episodes get into the zeitgeist people will understand what an amazing show that was. The first year is not the best year of that show. It's the second, third and fourth years that had so many gems that would be astonishing for people to watch in good quality or, again, within a group. It's one of those odd things where you could actually have a TV show that worked in a collective setting because of the time frame and because of the passage of time. It would take on a different dimension because of that.

Anyways, Force of Evil was the one I really wanted to get out there. Then I started realizing that there's a theme here and the theme—and it's obviously something that's been talked about in literature ever since we've been dealing with totalitarian states—is the tendency of the state to take away the rights of its citizens. It just sort of naturally moves in this direction. It's almost like a law of physics that, hopefully, we can stop at the pass. So with thinking on that, I had a great allegory for capitalism, for the numbers game, for coercion, for all the things that can stop freedom in that way, ironically in this so-called world of laissez faire capitalism, an oxymoron in my mind when you see how it progresses and devolves over time.

The theme needed to be elaborated and that's when Punishment Park and Karel Kachyna's Ucho (The Ear, 1970) came to mind. I wanted to show coercion, I wanted to show surveillance, but I also needed to show what happens when you're already on the other side down the rabbit hole. Ucho was the perfect film to show what that would be like. I also wanted to show mind games; that you can basically twist reality around to the point where you don't even know what's real anymore. That was the strategy that ultimately is deployed in Punishment Park. The state can change reality on people and subvert their ability to resist. You can stifle dissent by that mechanism. That's a very scary point that gets us back to what you were saying about the loss of critical thinking. It is paramount that an individual has the ability to resist so that you don't wind up in a scenario like Punishment Park, which is that film's great, prescient, cautionary aspect. That's what the progression of that film is. The audience member needs to think, "Okay. Now I need to know that I need to have more tools. I don't just need a lower case bs detector. I need one that is in upper case and has flashing lights and that is going to work for me almost instantaneously."

Guillén: Wasn't Punishment Park only exhibited for four days before being pulled from theaters? 

Malcolm: That's right. In 1971. They said, "Peter Watkins, you've gone too far this time."

Guillén: I was literally shocked by Punishment Park, because of the believability leant by its documentary approach. What I found most relevant and current about the film was—as events are unfolding in the narrative—in the background you hear radio transmissions and news reports of totalitarian tactics that are being implemented around the world. It reminded me how addicted and inured we are to broadcast news and how it is woven into the everyday sonic texture of our lives. I hardly need to make an effort to read the news because the news will always come to me by way of others who more faithfully attend to it, by glimpses of headlines, by overheard conversations. Punishment Park is a must-see film. 

Malcolm: I wish we could show it to hundreds of thousands of people. Again, I don't know if a third of this nation hasn't been permanently ruined and brainwashed by everything that has been done to them; but, I tend to think not. It's what you said before: the dumbing down is the key strategy that has been employed here.

Guillén: One final thing I want to stress is how much I admire that "Agitprop 2" is a program whose proceeds benefit the ACLU.

Malcolm: That's why we hope that we'll have lots of people there because it helps the ACLU help us. 

Guillén: Of all the organizations you could have chosen, why the ACLU? 

Malcolm: I felt it was the most elemental one that we have to deal with. Resources are being bestowed upon them by lots of people at this point for a reason. We need to concentrate our fire and make sure that—no matter what happens in those areas—the ACLU has the budget and the capability of being there on behalf of individual citizens. To me that was the simplest decision. Rather than try to get more arcane or more specific for particular things at this point. It seemed like the way to go because I wasn't sure how far this would go. That's the interesting question: can programs like "Agitprop 2" become part of the film landscape? The ACLU may be needed for a long time. We may be all shut down. The uncertainty of what is happening is still with us.

At this point I'm grateful that the Roxie is willing to devote some time out of their schedule. Obviously, they're pressured to do particular things as a business but they continue to show that side of things. Hopefully, we can make this viable enough that they'll want to do it on a regular basis. We'll just have to see.

Guillén: Your programming places film in the domain of activism. "Agitprop 2" is an activist festival.

Malcolm: There's no doubt about it.

Guillén: I'm ambivalent about movies these days. Do I like them? Do I not like them? I like them when they work. Fundamentally, I believe modern people need more primers for activism and I respect how you place the lineage of film alongside the lineage of activism. I want to believe in the potential of film. I constantly question whether film can really change anything. I want to believe that when audiences watch Punishment Park, it will make them want to resist, as you said earlier. But will they resist? Does film provide the will to resist? Lawrence Durrell once wrote, "understanding does not constitute a cure." I've long wrestled with that. Are you better off knowing what's going on when you can't change anything? Or feel you can't change anything? How do you think film provides hope?

Malcolm: Well, I'll try to answer that question as best I can, because it's imponderable, because the direction of society since the midcentury moment (so to speak) ends with a film like Punishment Park. This is a line of demarcation because there is a principle of hope floating around in the world after WWII, even in the midst of a lot of darkness and chaos; that they are going to build something good and valid and proper. Obviously, there's a Cold War going on, and there's a heavy moralistic idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be destroyed because it wasn't real Communism (but they didn't know that). You had the seeds of something amazing going on everywhere because there was this push toward something that had an eschatological concept.

Today, with consumerism, there is none of that. What's happened over this period of time is that we've become cynical about that. Not every individual, but collectively. We have lost that sense that we can make a difference. But we are seeing things that are making differences today popping up in the midst of the kinds of resistance that are going on: the women that are resisting sexual harassment and sexual abuse. These things may not turn things around immediately; but, it's the actions of these women that start doing something about the harassment and abuse that is significant. It's a hopeful sign in my mind. More of this will happen and more of us will be pushing back.

Hopefully, we'll have places like the Roxie who are willing to show these films to people and, over time, those historical films will bring out a desire in the people who watch them; a desire to be more creative. Film may bring them back. It might start moving the needle back in that direction. That's our best hope. That's my lantern in the window. That's one of the reasons that I wanted to show the films. This is a theme that people need to internalize. They need to understand it. They may not be able to change it immediately, but if they're not aware of it they can't change anything. The more people that are aware, the more chance something can happen.

No comments: