Wednesday, October 31, 2007

THAI CINEMA—Bangkok Love Story Picked Up by TLA Releasing

When Todd Brown at Twitch first mentioned Pod Anon's Bangkok Love Story, offering up the trailer and a music video, I took note. Todd wrote: "[T]he roaming camera and gorgeous cinematography somehow bring Hou Hsiao-Hsien to mind."

TLA Releasing has acquired all theatrical, home video, television and VOD entertainment rights for Bangkok Love Story's North America and United Kingdom distribution. The film will be released in the summer of 2008 through the TLA Releasing label.

Bangkok Love Story tells the story of Maek (Rattanaballang Tohssawat), an assassin who is sent to kill Iht (Chaiwat Tongsaeng); but—when a twist of fate brings the men together—Maek refuses to kill Iht and takes a bullet in an ensuing gunfight. Iht helps Maek back to a safe house and nurses him back to health. A bond develops and the two men become emotionally attached. Confused—since Maek's life as an assassin doesn't allow him emotional attachments, especially with his assigned target—Maek attempts to leave but Iht will not give up on him. And when Maek goes back to his boss to rectify the situation and Iht suddenly appears, the end result is a bloody gunfight that will pit enemies, friends and lovers against each other. The film also stars Suchao Pongwilai of Ong-Bak Warrior fame.

Bangkok Love Story had a successful theatrical release in Thailand opening on September 13, 2007 and is in competition at the 34th Brussels International Film Festival along with being featured as the Opening Night selection for the 2007 Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Cross-published at Twitch.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

THE WIZARD OF GORE—Herschell Gordon Lewis and Joshua Grannell On Stage

That's right, horror fans—the "godfather of gore" himself, Herschell Gordon Lewis, creator of Blood Feast, 2,000 Maniacs, She-Devils On Wheels, and more will be on-hand for both outstandingly rare screenings of The Wizard of Gore as part of the Landmark Theatres' Late Night Picture Shows. Peaches Christ's alter-ego and horror filmmaker Joshua Grannell will interview the genre idol at both shows on November 2 and November 3. Do not miss this remarkable chance to hear the master himself relate his filmmaking experiences—a career that many say constitutes the creation of the modern horror movie as we now know it! Clay Theatre, Fillmore at Clay, Show at Midnight, $9.75.

Also, H.G. Lewis will appear at Amoeba Music on Saturday, November 3rd for an in-store signing at 2PM.

For those who have been out of the loop, here is my Greencine interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis and my interview with Peaches Christ's fierce alter-ego Joshua Grannell, Parts One and Two.

Monday, October 29, 2007

IN ROTATION—Pacze Moj & Critical Culture

Okay. I will admit it. My blogroll has become completely unwieldly. There was a time—was it really that long ago?—when I was able to faithfully keep up with the entries on my friends' sites. Nowadays, I'm barely able to keep up with my own obsessive re-reading of my own posts, Dave Hudson's encyclopedic announcements at The Greencine Daily, Brian Darr's shuffling of a suspiciously stacked calendar deck, and wrestling elbows with the other kids at Professor Girish Shambu's eponymous classroom where I sit in the back with the dunce cap on, surly and withdrawn, prone to juvenile violence. Hand me that spray can!!

I feel so guilty. How can I ever expect anyone to comment at The Evening Class if I don't comment at their sites? It usually takes a bout of severe insomnia to get me to break the exponential agony of my blogroll and actually "catch up" as it were. So, I've decided to start a feature here on The Evening Class that I will call "In Rotation" where, on those nights of insomniatic reciprocity, I actually eschew all my regular obsessions to momentarily indulge a new one: to read what's up at one of the sites on my blogroll. Imagine!

First off, Critical Culture. Pacze Moj is one of my favorite writers on line. No one—other than maybe Darren Hughes at Long Pauses—informs his ruminations with such a poetic and philosophic sensibility. I love his multidisciplinary approach towards cinema, filtering a film through other mediums of art and other scientific disciplines to achieve fresh insights. He's also one of the best at screen capture analysis and I'm quite fond of his ability to unpack one scene in a movie to demonstrate his grasp of the whole.

In the last month Pacze has been on something of a historical binge. He has three stimulating posts in that regard. His most recent pretentious rambling is his consideration of history as the world's longest bad novel. Put on Joni Mitchell's latest Shine and you're right at home. This entry has some fascinating glimpses into legislative reactions at the time to the Mexican-American War gleaned from William Earl Weeks' Building the Continental Empire: American Expansion from the Revolution to the Civil War.

Prior to that, Pacze considered Marshall McLuhan's playful reflexivity with regard to revolutionary progress and compares it to an article he excavated from the April 1974 issue of The Journal of Contemporary History. Now, who else will conduct such archaeology on your behalf? Be grateful, children.

Thirdly, Pacze shockingly reveals the horrid ineptitude of McGraw Hill's textbook A History of the Modern World, popularly used in North American high school and lower-level undergraduate history classes; a text which is embarrassingly inaccurate. I now feel fully justified blaming my middle school education as the reason that I don't know diddlely squat about geography, like a few other Americans I know. Looking at the maps that Pacze provides—having just come off of my Lebanese cinema tirade—I wonder if we shouldn't just resolve this confusion about what is the capital of what and just rename all these cities "Ruins"? It's a suggestion. It would certainly make it easier for me and a couple of other Americans I know.

But before he began waxing historic, Pacze—partly in response to a cue at Scribble and Ramblings (yet another neglected site on my blogroll)—has endeavored a most remarkable venture called The Mule Train ("TMT"). Get on board. He has three entries in this series. The first, a rich sampling of the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, links and all; the second, a wealth of Ali Farke Touré; and the third, more Jacques Becker than you can shake a stick at.

So, if I can ever catch up with my blogroll, I can get my hands on TMT's loot. Thanks for all your continuing hard work, Pacze. I want to make sure you know it does not go unappreciated or unread.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

2007 AFF: LEBANESE CINEMA—A Perfect Day, Falafel and The Last Man

Launched in 2006 and supported by the European Union, the Caravan of Euro-Arab Cinema sponsored a series of cinematic events (aptly named "Caravan Nights") in various European and Mediterranean cities earlier this year. Focusing on Lebanese cinema, Caravan Nights presented 11 films produced between 2000 and 2006, representing established directors with unique approaches and up-and-coming directors making their feature-film debut. The screened films reflected the uniqueness of Lebanese film production less concerned with traditional issues and heavily influenced by the diaspora from Lebanon. During May and June, the Caravan traveled through the Netherlands where it attracted 4,500 filmgoers and screened Arab films in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and other Dutch cities. It also participated with 11 films in all four competitive categories of June's 7th Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam. In July the Caravan was represented at the 5th Paris Cinema Festival at the Arab World Institute, where it then moved on to the Toulouse Cinématheque.

San Francisco's Arab Film Festival brought three of these Lebanese features—Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's A Perfect Day (2005), Michel Kammoun's Falafel (2006), and Ghassan Salhab's The Last Man (2006)—to the Bay Area. Each employed Beirut at night as their mise-en-scène and shared common themes, albeit by individual stylistic flourishes. Kammoun, the youngest of the directors, explored a magical realism unique to the Mideast through Falafel; Salhab enunciated Beirut's death wish through The Last Man; and Hadjithomas and Joreige used A Perfect Day to profile the foolish hope of a Lebanese youth who decides to live life his way.

Throughout the festival, Peter Limbrick's introductory remarks provided working commentary to deepen my appreciation of these three films, specifically his references to "latency" in Lebanese cinema, which he described as "a sense that something is underneath and bubbling up even if it's not directly addressed"; that "something" being Lebanon's past, specifically its recent civil war. Limbrick asked us to give thought to how all three films are trying to deal in many ways with Lebanon's civil war but not by approaching it head-on.

In his Fall 2001 Middle East Quarterly article "Après la guerre", Martin Kramer specified: "Of the many questions haunting the Middle East, two concern the legacies of recent conflicts when Arab fought Arab with fanatic gusto. Iraq and Lebanon are now both [over] a decade after their wars, but question-marks still hover over the aftermath. …Has Lebanon moved beyond the trauma of war, far enough to reclaim its suspended independence? Filmmakers have attempted to answer [this] question[], with widely different degrees of art and integrity."

Kramer states Lebanon "remains a place of striking contradictions that few directors can resist" but qualifies that it "is a demographically young country, so memory of the war has very quickly grown foggy—perhaps too quickly, for the war's lessons were never clearly learned by Lebanon's leaders." He notes "the civil war has receded, and been made to recede, from the conscience of Lebanon" and "[t]hose who lived through the war prefer to forget it." The cost of such enforced forgetfulness, however, breeds irresolution of conflicts in the Middle East. "They enter latency," Kramer cautions.

Picking at Beirut's scars produces amazingly consistent complexes of images, which I seek to explore and elucidate through these three films. "Beirut, of course," Kramer writes, "is strewn with silent ruins." It's perhaps worthwhile to note that The Last Man's Arabic title is literally translated "Ruins." Kramer analyzes that "these terrible places where bloody massacres took place are attested to by no more than pockmarked walls, which will no doubt be bulldozed into the ground; they are no substitute for a proper memorial, which are entirely missing. The bereaved keep private memorials on their mantles, but there is no sense of collective loss. …In fact, nowhere in Lebanon is there a single memorial to the fallen." I would suggest that Lebanese cinema itself has become the necessary memorial demanded by the Lebanese collective psyche to counter the institutionalized denials of demolition and erasure, under the guise of reconstruction.

"The man who personifie[d] the will to forget," Kramer profiles, "is Rafiq al-Hariri, who served as prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and was reelected again in October 2000. One purpose of Solidère, Hariri's private corporation for the reconstruction of Beirut, [was] to bulldoze away the physical traces of the war." Laboring under the profitable premise that "out of sight is out of mind", Kramer characterizes Hariri as "the clean slate, a man not implicated in Lebanon's wars, a super-contractor who [tore] down the past to build a new, antiseptic present behind reflecting glass." Reconstruction is configured as a form of cleansing and yet Lebanese cinema implies the stains—resistant to such efforts—go much deeper than the surface. Despite Hariri's efforts to put the past behind, he was assassinated by a presumed Syrian suicide bomber. So much for the will to forget through sanitized surfaces.

I bring this up only to underscore that the protagonist Malek (Ziad Saad) in A Perfect Day is a construction worker at just such a demolition site who, curiously, suffers from bouts of narcolepsy, unable to stay awake to complete the job of reconstruction. The film's theatrical poster shows him unconscious. The demolition is further hindered by the discovery of corpses. The film's title connotes "a perfect day" when the exhaustive burden of vigil and memory can finally be put to rest. After 15 years of awaiting news of his kidnapped father, Lebanese law allows the bereaved to officially declare missing loved ones dead. And yet Malek and his mother Claudia (Julia Kassar) find themselves unable to follow through on the legal declaration and Malek is morbidly obsessed that the corpse discovered at the demolition site might bear some identificatory marks that would identify him as his father. These are wounds of absence that shun legal remedy. Curiously, in Falafel the father never makes an appearance and is, in effect, likewise absent.

Further, in Falafel there is a moment when protagonist Tou (Elie Mitri) witnesses a kidnapping while making a telephone call. He is ineffectual and can do nothing to help the victim. When he is later himself the victim of random abuse, he can only look at his wounds in the mirror and weep. In his fantasies of violent revenge he is momentarily valorized; but, in life he is consistently emasculated. The "wages of silence", Kramer suggests, become evident by the fact that "[a]cross Lebanon, revolvers are still under pillows (and easy enough to buy on the street)." A revolver plays into both A Perfect Day and Falafel as a necessary prop, a kind of wishful thinking that violence will bring resolution, if not healing.

Another similarity in both films is how mothers wait, estranged and distanced from their husbands and sons. Lebanese women can no longer rely on men to protect them. They maneuver the stages of grief on their own. Perhaps they represent the abandoned body of Lebanon?

Another scholar who has mined the subtleties of latency in Lebanese cinema has been Laura U. Marks, author of The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (2000) and Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (2002). Dr. Marks has curated programs of film, video, and new media for venues around the world and is the Dena Wosk University Professor in Art and Culture Studies in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. Though her research far exceeds a Lebanese subject, her insights are valuable.

In her recent essay "Mohamed Soueid's cinema of immanence" (Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007), Marks states that Beirut is "already performing a psychoanalysis. It is already archaeological. It knows all about ruins." Film out of Lebanon, and specifically Beirut, require not only interpretation but excavation, aligning with the familiar practice of philosopher William Benjamin to interpret "the failures of ideology from the ruins of its demise."

Following up on the reconstructive strategies of Rafiq al-Hariri and bringing his profile up to date, Marks writes: "Lebanon is a country whose vulnerability to outside powers (including Israel, the United States, Syria, and lately Iran) and internal divisiveness make it impossible to assert a unified narrative of the nation's history or confidently to draw causal connections between historical events. There has been no agreement as to the facts of what happened during the civil war (1975-1990), no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and no official strategy for healing from the war's savage effects. The political upheaval surrounding the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005 and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal continued acutely to test Lebanese people's ability to narrate history in a linear and non-contradictory way. In July 2006, Israel criminally bombarded civilian targets all across Lebanon, in an attack supposedly against Hizballah that demolished the infrastructure that, during Hariri's rule, had begun to unify the country geographically. This attack divided Lebanon's population even further along religious lines, and further underscored the country's utter vulnerability to the whims of international powers.

"In the post-civil war era, it was already impossible for documentary filmmakers to identify historical events and fix blame. Now this situation is only exacerbated. Insofar as Lebanese documentarists are able to continue to function at all, they continue to work by imaginatively stretching the truth, mixing documentary, fiction, personal and conceptual approaches. They confront the country's history like a plane of immanence. The acts that are known and demonstrable are less politically salient than the teeming sea of virtuals, events that have been bulldozed over, witnessed only by the dead and disappeared, forgotten in the official history that seeks to reinsert Lebanon into the global economy, and even forgotten by the participants in the war, for who can afford to live with a gaping wound?"

By applying her comments to feature films, Marks lends insight into the nature of "latency" in Lebanese cinema. Latency, as Limbrick implied in his introduction, characterizes the domain of the repressed in Lebanese society which pops up to assert itself. Marks describes this as happening through narratives "structured by a symptomatic course of declarations and disavowals" and "a tendency to avoid attributing root causes and to favor this-ness, fragmentariness, indirection." The fatigue and stress of living with postwar uncertainty connotes a collective trauma. Though writing on the films of Mohamed Soueid, Marks' comments could equally apply to the characters in the three films under discussion. They are obsessive characters. They are people "whose neuroses and tragedies make them truthful historical subjects." By "subjects" she means individuals who are essentially "knots of tics, bad habits, and accommodations that allow them to deal (not without flair) with impossible situations. They are not so much psychological subjects as knots in a political field, their individual neuroses the manifestation of political trauma."

In an earlier interview on the question of latency, Dr. Marks described the phenomenon where "everything that is expressed conceals many other things that have not been expressed." Not only is this observed through the effects of the civil war on the particularities of everyday life as registered through individual narratives of neuroses, but also through a quest for truth in media representation. Extolling the virtues of Lebanon's experimental video documentary movement—which Marks proclaims is "Lebanon's greatest contribution to contemporary Arab and world cinema"—she then notes with interest that "what the contemporary film and video makers in Beirut are doing … is mostly about what counts as truth, how do you represent what really happened?"

This especially comes across in Falafel during a compelling reimagining of the lunar landing as watched on a television set. A giant falafel approaches the lunar surface like a massive meteorite and spins history awry. This underscores Marks' assertion that the problem of mainstream media is a problem of "indexicality" or—as she states it—"there are so many images in the world that don't tell the truth. Any mainstream representations, whether they are from the west or overseas, or whether they are local, official images; for example in Lebanon the official histories of the civil war try to cut it up, erase it, and smooth it over."

Just as cinema provides the memorial sorely lacking to commemorate the missing and the dead, so does it also provide a means to express what remains latent and inexpressible, particularly through an audio-visual expression "rather than simply reiterating something that has already been expressed." On that point I consider Malek's narcoplepsy in A Perfect Day to be a profound effective expression of trying to awake or to keep awake even as the culture aspires towards forgetfulness. All three films traverse a nocturnal vigil that waits or maneuvers towards dawn or some incremental increase in consciousness.

Perhaps the most interesting of these three in that respect is The Last Man, highly touted as Lebanon's first vampire film; but as Peter Limbrick has swiftly pointed out, "it's the strangest vampire movie that you're ever going to see."

In his introduction to The Last Man at its Roxie Film Center screening, Limbrick stated Ghassan Salhab had made two previous feature films—Beyrouth Fantôme and Terra Incognita—whose titles provide a sense that his films all tend to use Beirut as a focus. "They're all interested in multiple kinds of layers of history of Beirut," Limbrick explained, circumambulating around the now ready theme of ruins and psychological excavation. "Salhab describes his own city as a place where he says 'constantly small fissures can turn into gaping abysses.' I've seen him also quote—I think Samuel Beckett—who said 'Beirut is a city continually being undone and redone.' " Again, the theme of reconstruction as a means of forgetting and cleansing.

Acknowledging that—despite its thematic similarities to A Perfect DayThe Last Man, Limbrick clarifies, "does its work in a really different style and I'd like to say a couple of things about that style. First of all, as befits a vampire movie, it is certainly not shot in a realist style. We can see a lot of places where there is a kind of naturalism about the way Salhab presents the city, but he and Jacques Boquin—who did the absolutely incredible cinematography in this film—have really sort of … as you see the film unfold, you begin to realize that it presents Beirut in a way that is stranger and stranger. It has a stylized color palette in places, we see architecture and space of the city given to us in ways that are alienating and distancing. Its editing works like that as well. This is a film that is put together in a discontinuous style. So don't be watching thinking for everything to make absolute narrative sense. It doesn't flow like a Hollywood film. The result is enigmatic. It sat with me for a long time after I saw it. I grew to appreciate its enigma. I should mention also the soundtrack for this film is stunning. Here again there's a link to A Perfect Day. Both these filmmakers are interested in the soundscape of Beirut and are attentive to the sounds found in the city, everything from cell phones to other aspects around us."

In fact it is the audio-visual design of The Last Man that proves stunning as a means of expressing the gradual recognition on the part of its protagonist Dr. Khalil Shams (in a completely understated yet mesmerizing performance by Carlos Chahine) that he is becoming something unknown, nearly unfathomable, to himself. Lapses of sound pull him out of his common world into another requiring a different attention and an altered self-perception. Silence, an aversion to daylight, and a lack of reflection become the vampiric tropes by which Shams intuits his new self. As Limbrick writes for the program capsule: "The Last Man evokes the layers of the past that make up Beirut's sedimented present. Rather than approach history and politics head-on, Salhab's film does its work through an unlikely idea: a vampire is sucking the lifeblood from Beirut's citizenry, one victim at a time." Dr. Shams gradually suspects he is the vampire. "Recoiling from sunlight, [he] explores the darker dimensions of a wintry Beirut … as he increasingly questions his own capacity for intimate violence."

Summoned into fraternity with his "maker", The Last Man's final image of Dr. Shams receding underground as dawn approaches is devastatingly nihilistic. All three films provide nuanced reactions to recent events in Lebanon expressed in indirect but insightful ways and I am immensely grateful to the Arab Film Festival for providing this welcome exposure to Lebanese cinema.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

2007 AFF: A Muslim Childhood—Moumen Smihi On Towns: Literature: Cinema.

The Arab Film Festival boasted the U.S. premiere of Moroccan filmmaker Moumen Smihi's latest film El Ayel/La Gosse de Tanger (A Muslim Childhood). As Peter Limbrick wrote for the festival catalog: "Moumen Smihi's career as a director spans more than thirty years, making him one of the most eminent figures in Moroccan cinema. In A Muslim Childhood, Smihi creates a sumptuous mise-en-scene of Tangiers in the 1950s, where a young boy, Larbi, tries to find his place in the collision of cultures and influences he experiences around him. Under the sway of his strict Muslim father, modern mother, and French high school, the solitary and timid Larbi finds escape from his personal traumas in the International Zone of Tangiers, where cinema and decadence beckon and offer him another kind of world. Smihi's film is saturated throughout with a color palette of Mediterranean blue that helps the film achieve the mixture of Proustian nostalgia and Dickensian fictional style that Smihi consciously sought. In an arresting and contemplative style, in which voiceover often accompanies shots resembling tableaux vivants, Smihi attempts to recreate the singularity of a time, place, and cultural identity for his viewer. In so doing, this stunning film, part fiction and part autobiography, declares its love for cinema while at the same time rendering for its viewers the rich cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of life in 1950s Morocco."

Moumen and I wanted to get together to discuss A Muslim Childhood, but our schedules were at odds with each other and we, unfortunately, missed during his visit. Until we can achieve same by email, Moumen has forwarded me some of his thoughts while visiting San Francisco, especially with regard to the influence the San Franciscan Beat poets had on his own work. Moumen acknowledges Joe Garofoli from the San Francisco Chronicle for "triggering" these remembrances. I, in turn, am most grateful for his permission to share them with The Evening Class.


Ginsberg censored in the States when he was acclaimed in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world! What a terrible contradiction! In the fifties, Allen Ginsberg was one of the brilliant representatives of the American literature that haunted my town in North-Africa, Tangier. Gregory Corso, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs were the other U.S. literature giants that time to time visited Morocco or were living and working there. Their books were exposed in the bookshops (as in one called "Librairie des Colonnes" in Tangier) and libraries (the one of "The American School" for instance in the same Tangier) and Moroccans as well as all the readers of many countries of the world were diving with the biggest admiration into The Naked Lunch, On The Road or A Streetcar Named Desire. Drugs, homosexuality, communism (we heard proudly that Paul Bowles had once been a member of the American Communist Party) ... nothing of these scandalous and repressed themes could interfere or mix the pleasure of meeting this immense literature of liberation, of deep humanism in its conterculture entity. My generation of Arabs coming out of the colonialism period was so excited to find in these books and minds what [could] enhance their thirst of anti-conformism and liberty. Then, America and her writers and intellectuals were a model, an ideal, the hope of our future. When—as a young man—I was watching members of the Beat Generation at the cafes all around the little square called Socco Chico in Tangier, or listening to lectures of poems and texts in Paul Bowles place at Chemin des amoureux Street, I never could imagine that censorship was acting in their prestigious country. In fact I must say that I was a dreaming boy ... but nevertheless a kind of a coquelicot, a savage grass breathing in cosmopolitan marginalism. And that is what I filmed many many years later in A Muslim Childhood, a feature about the fifties in Tangier.


The Egyptian writer Taha Hussein in modern Arab culture is the symbol of a similar rebellion against orthodoxy and fundamentalism, and his influence in literature, in religion's history, in education changed the face of the Arab World and will change it more and more: he was a dominant figure in Tangier by his books: one of his masterpieces, Wednesday's Lectures, was born in The American University in Cairo in the fifties.


Alfred Hitchcock is not as much the master of thrillers as of the anti-conformist feelings and psychology, his films being always in the tradition of the Surrealist's "mad love" (l'amour fou); in cinema: Luis Buñuel (Un Chien Andalou, L'Âge d'Or, That Obscure Object of Desire). Vertigo: San Francisco: up-down, left-right: how to fight against phobia: against the "repressed" in psychoanalytical meaning.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, October 26, 2007

2007 AFF: MAKING OFThe Evening Class Interview With Lotfi Abdelli

Lotfi Abdelli is a charismatic, handsome young Tunisian who carries himself confidently. His left eyebrow is accented by a diagonal scar. The award-winning actor for the Arab Film Festival's opening night feature Making Of was, as we reported earlier, detained for five hours at San Francisco International Airport upon his arrival. We met in the newly-situated AFF offices to discuss the incident with artistic director Sonia El Feki graciously providing translation (when allowed). Abdelli, who has joked that he has spent five thousand Arab dollars learning English, insisted upon practicing. Thus, I have elected to retain the charm of his broken English out of respect for his accomplished effort.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Lotfi, as a San Franciscan and an American, I wanted to express my deep regret regarding your detainment at the San Francisco International Airport. I hope that—during your stay here in San Francisco—through your festival audiences and the people you meet on the street every day while you're here, that you'll come to realize that the average American is essentially like the average Tunisian; we all want to reach clarity about these matters. To that effect, in hopes that it will further that clarity, I've brought you a rock crystal that I've had blessed by Native American elders, shamans, and I'd like you to take that home with you to your country.

Lotfi Abdelli: Thank you.

Guillén: Could we talk a little bit about what happened at the airport? I don't want to stir up too many bad memories, but there are some things I would like to know: were you treated respectfully by airport security during your detainment?

Abdelli: No. They are respectful but they ask me questions for five hours and sometimes the same question, sometimes I didn't understand which kind of question. They ask me why I come here and I explain to them that I am invited by the festival. They tell me why you come here again and I explain again, "I'm here for the festival." What is your job? I explain what is my job. What is your business? I explain what is my business. What kind of film? After they take the DVD and they see the film they ask me, "You are encouraging and glorifying the fundamentalist in your film" and I said, "It's not true. We are against this and it's very nice for American people to see this film because we explain how it's fragile to become terrorist. It's good to know about this." They ask me what I think about America. After, they take my telephone and they go through the [contacts list] and they ask me what is this names? Who are these people? What is my relation with these people? Sometimes they left me waiting for half an hour and they come back and they ask me again the same questions.

Guillén: Did you have a translator with you so you could better understand their interrogation?

Abdelli: No.

Guillén: They didn't even bother to provide a translator?! [I have to stifle my irritation.] Well, again, I'm very sorry that you had to go through this and I'm especially grateful that you didn't just jump on the next plane home because we—as San Franciscans, as Americans—have benefited from your being here.

With regard to Making Of, I appreciated the film, precisely because it falls within a category of films—and your performance joins a group of performances such as Robert DeNiro's in Taxi Driver and Edward Norton in American X—which focus on the theme of indoctrination. These are films about impassioned individuals without direction and appropriate guidance. Your performance is stunning.

Abdelli: Thank you.

Guillén: How did you get pulled into the project? I understand you are a professionally-trained dancer and have started your own company in Tunisia, is this correct?

Abdelli: Yes. I start with the National Ballet, classic. We create the National Ballet when I was dancer with Tunisian people and we invite French and American and Russian dancers because there were not enough Tunisian professional. We invited a lot of dancers from the world and we created the National Ballet. It's classical and modern and, after I've done a lot of contemporary dance, dance theater all this, and a lot of theater.

Guillén: So it was through your dance performances that you achieved visibility? And then directors began approaching you to do film work?

Abdelli: No. I start to, like 10 years ago, I've done much Tunisian movies—Poupées d'argile [Clay Dolls] with Nouri Bouzid

Guillén: Ah, so you were involved in an earlier film of his? [Poupées d'argile played at the 2005 Arab Film Festival.]

Abdelli: Yes. And he think about me and he tell me, "Maybe we work on the next film together?" When he just finished the script, he call me and he tell me, "Okay, there is script, and I think about you and what do you think?" I say, "It's okay." Everybody dream to work with Nouri Bouzid.

Guillén: Did you read the script before committing?

Abdelli: Yeah, I read the script. I read the script but Nouri change a lot. That mean for Nouri, a script is a script. But when he start to shoot, it's another thing. He can change a lot. He can improvise and develop it. When we start, you know, reality is not like when you write or read the script. It's not reality. And when we start the reality, that means the real thing start, and I ask him to explain to me which way we are going now because it's so fragile.

Guillén: These "making-of" sequences that are within the film—what we here in the States call breaking the fourth wall—were they scripted? Or did they develop out of your conversations with Nouri during the shooting of the film?

Abdelli: No, no, it was not in the script. But when we are making the film, there is a big tension between me and Nouri, a big discussion, and all the time we have some people with camera like this filming, and I tell him, "Okay, maybe tomorrow or after tomorrow, I don't know, when I will say stop. There is some points at some moment I want to speak with you about." He tell me, "Okay, let's speak now." I say, "No. We speak when it's time. Just be ready with your camera and we speak." He tell me, "What you want to tell me? Maybe we write something?" I tell him, "No. We write nothing."

Guillén: So you're telling me those sequences are verbatim discussions you're having with Nouri? They're not scripted? They were filmed and inserted as verité?

Abdelli: It was what I think. It was what Nouri think. And it was surprise for me what Nouri answer for me and I answer for him. He don't know. I don't know.

Guillén: For us here in the United States—and I'm always so apologetic for us because generally we're such ignorant, fearful Christians as a whole and know very little about any other religion except our own, namely Islam—Islam like Christianity or any major religion of the world has many different expressions?

Abdelli: Yes.

Guillén: In Tunisia, let's say, is there a particular local expression of Islam? Clearly, Making Of is against a fundamentalist approach towards Islam. I'm curious, how does contemporary Islam in Tunisia look upon your dancing?

Abdelli: It's not problem dancing in Tunisia or something like this. They are very open mind, Tunisian and Muslim Tunisian, and Muslim too, on dance. No problem for this. Our problem in Tunisia is with the fundamentalists. We didn't have problem. In our mind we didn't let fundamentalists grow up in our country. You can see Algeria. You can see Morocco. There are a lot of fundamentalists. But in our country we fight for this, Tunisian artists and government, we try to keep them out.

Guillén: Interestingly, there are many who would say that's the exact same problem we're having with Christian fundamentalists in the United States. The separation of church and state is something they are constantly trying to undo.

Abdelli: Yeah, yeah.

Guillén: In the process of making the film then, your objections to Nouri: were they because you were being asked to portray exactly this fundamentalist that you don't personally believe in? Why did you become frightened?

Abdelli: I afraid because sometimes I didn't understand. I want to understand perfectly what Nouri Bouzid want to do with me. It's not like love story, you can say, "It's okay, it's improvisation, you can do what you want, I feel you, nice feeling." No. This is about my religion. We can hurt a lot of people with this film. We can hurt a lot of Muslim. I don't want to do this. "This film," I tell him, "I want me and you, we have to work against the fundamentalists, not against Islam." Because I want to understand what's happen. For this I said, "Stop, now. What we are doing? What are the person talking with me? What you mean with this?" I want to understand because it's so nuanced.

Guillén: Do you think the concerns you expressed to Nouri helped shape the final film? Would Nouri have made the same film had you not been as concerned about these nuances?

Abdelli: I don't know because we made this. I don't know if maybe he's with another actor what he will do. It depends for the moment for the relation between the filmmaker and the actors. Me, I put my energy like in this way. I put my intelligence and my way of thinking to Nouri and I ask him. I don't know if maybe another actor to tell him, "Stop." Maybe he do his job. I don't know. I can't [say].

Guillén: But clearly Making Of did the right thing and expressed the nuance you were concerned about between criticizing fundamentalism and not specifically Islam? Audiences are relating to this film throughout the world. You've said that Tunisians are claiming this film, they're proud of it, it's speaking for them. So you are pleased with the final outcome? Your concerns have been met?

Abdelli: Yes. And I think Nouri is very intelligent because he put this making-of into the film to show some kind of reality for how we are vulnerable.

Guillén: Did you know he was going to do that?

Abdelli: No. He surprise me too.

Guillén: [Laughter.] He sounds like a lot of fun to work with!

Abdelli: Yes, it's very funny to work with Nouri. I tell you, there is no actor work with Nouri [that] didn't have award.

Guillén: One thing I have always wanted to understand about Islam—and not only Islam but in different areas of conflict in the world—is the essential role of women. It's as if the denigration of women, and the categorization of the female body as polluted, serves to create the rationalization for warfare. I was concerned with the scene in the film where you beat up your girlfriend. Can you talk a little bit about what you were feeling during that sequence? And what you hope is actually being said?

Abdelli: I like too much this scene because I think artistically it's very strong moment. It's a moment to show how we can change the way of perception for the girl. In the beginning for him, it's normal, and they indoctrinate him. He change the way to see the woman, you understand? He see her like a prostitute and it's important to show what's the danger, how it's dangerous this kind of thinking, you know? In our country it's easy to see a woman like European, dressing what she like. We [don't] oblige them to have this or this or this. They are free to go coffee. They are free to go dance. They are free to drink alcohol or to smoke. We have this freedom in Tunisia.

Guillén: I think it's so important for us here in the United States to realize that there are expressions of Islam that have these freedoms; that there is a free-minded, free-spirited expression for Muslims in their faith. That it is, indeed, comparable to Christianity.

Abdelli: Islam, it's like all the religions, you do what you want with it. You can take any religion. You can take anything. You can make terrorism with it. And you can take any religion and you can make peace. You can take art and make terrorism with art. You can make peace with art. It depends for the people. It depends for what you want. Some people want to war. Some people want the peace.

Guillén: I understand the reasoning for the film's ending and I thought your response at the film's Q&A regarding the ending of the film was absolutely appropriate; however, suicide is completely forbidden in Islam, is it not?

Abdelli: Yes.

Guillén: So where does this place this character Bahta? How are we then to perceive this character? Committing suicide, he's not a hero? Not only has he violated family bonds but he has gone against the Muslim faith.

Abdelli: He's not a hero. First, he kill himself because he is not intellectual. He is all the time play with thing, you know? He is like animal. He all the time don't think. He never think. Bahta is not somebody who can be intellectual, can understand what's happen, you know? He's not really good Muslim enough. If he's very good Muslim enough, he don't speak with these people. He understand from the first time that they are fundamentalist. This mean the problem of Bahta too is he is ignorant. He don't know what is Islam. For this, they can change his mind. For this, he can explode himself.

Guillén: Would you say the Tunisian government bears responsibility in any way for Bahta's lack of education and his ignorance? Are they responsible for such ignorance among young people?

Abdelli: Ignorance in young people is throughout the world.

Guillén: So it's the commonality of inexperience more than anything else?

Abdelli: Yes. In America you find lots of ignorant young people. In Tunis. In Paris, in France. Everywhere in the world, the problem. I don't know. All the governments, I think, are responsible, not only Tunisian.

Guillén: You mentioned at the Q&A that—if Bahta would have been allowed to go to Europe to pursue his love for dancing—perhaps there could have been a different outcome for his life. That's a veiled critique of the social pressures upon young people that do not allow them to manifest their dreams. I bring this up because I recently interviewed Mario Tronco, the artistic director of L'Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio, and Agostino Ferrente, the filmmaker who recently made a documentary about the formation of the orchestra. The orchestra had several Tunisian musicians among its company. These were musicians who had emigrated to Italy from Tunisia who were having problems creating a new life for themselves in Rome. Mario had the vision of organizing a multicultural orchestra combining various musical traditions and traditional instruments from each country and his vision became a solution. The orchestra is a beautiful expression.

Abdelli: I did not see this.

Guillén: But there was an example where young Tunisians broke out of the limitations of their lives in Tunisia and found artistic expression and creative development in Europe. Is there anything the Tunisian government can do to further creative expression among Tunisia's youth?

Abdelli: But it's not only Tunisian government; it's people too. Tunisians have to think about children, about these young people. I think the Tunisian government too has to think more about this. We artists have to think about this too. How to help these people? It's not only one responsibility; it's all our responsibility. We have to do something for these young people.

Guillén: Before actually starting the interview, we talked a bit informally about my belief that you are capable of crossing over and becoming an international star if you want to be. Whether you want to be or not, is of course your choice. But you've definitely had such a success with this film—winning seven Best Actor awards to date while the film's been on the festival circuit—and through the film's circulation creating an international profile for yourself. What do you want to do? What do you hope this film will do and where do you want to go from here?

Abdelli: I hope this film [will] make people think with us and to make people believe that we can think and we can do a lot of good things and we can be good artists. This first. For me, I don't know. It's enough for me to do some films like this to push the people thinking. I hope to do more courageous film like this. I don't mind who's the producer or who the filmmaker—Tunisian, Israel or American—it's not my problem; but, I hope for the future I do this kind of films. Not only on terrorism but engaged activist film. I like these kind of movies.

Guillén: From how you have expressed yourself and represented Tunisia, the impression I'm getting is that Tunisia's actually a hip, smart, educated and brave country. Your participation in this project was brave, was it not?

Abdelli: Yes, but we have to do. If we don't do, who going to do this kind of participation? We have to do. We have to make the first step all the time. If you don't make the first step, there is no step, nothing. You are waiting. And we have enough to wait; we have to do something.

Guillén: Is there any director you would like to work with?

Abdelli: Yes, there is some French director, there is some Arabic director, I want to work with. Yousry Nasrallah maybe. He's Egyptian. [Bab el Shams (The Gate of the Sun) screened at the Arab Film Festival two years ago.] I want to work with the guy who has done Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building), Marwan Hamed, we are a little bit friends. [The Arab Film Festival co-presented The Yacoubian Building with the San Francisco International Film Festival.]

Guillén: Well, I hope you get to work with such distinguished directors, Lotfi. I know you want to dance and do stage work, but, I encourage you to continue acting in film. Your physicality is eloquent and a distinct voice in cinema. I'm going to look forward to watching what you do in the years to come. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me today and, again, I sincerely hope that your stay in San Francisco will remedy your unpleasant arrival and those bum five hours.

Abdelli: Thank you.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

2007 AFF--Lotfi Abdelli Detained At San Francisco International Airport

Opening night for the Arab Film Festival was marred by the news that Lotfi Abdelli, the actor in the opening night feature Making Of, had been detained upon arrival at the San Francisco International Airport and questioned for nearly five hours by airport authorities regarding his possible terrorist leanings. They asked him, "What are you doing here?" He answered that he had been invited by the Arab Film Festival to accompany the opening night feature. He provided all his proper documentation. They waited a few minutes and began again, "What are you really doing here?" This went on for four and a half hours without the assistance of a translator or without word to his traveling companion and Kathy Kenny, chair of the festival's Board of Directors, who had arrived to pick him up.

This so outraged me that I negotiated a one-on-one interview with Lotfi to discuss the incident and that will be up on The Evening Class within the next few days. I further encouraged Kathy Kenny to contact the local media to report the incident. Michael Hawley, contributing writer here at The Evening Class took it upon himself to contact Leah Garchik at the San Francisco Chronicle to inform her as well. Garchik's column for today's Chronicle revealed the official explanation as being: "Artist or not, you are Arabic, you are young, you have potential."

I cannot express how sad and ashamed this makes me to be both a San Franciscan and an American citizen when the very tenor of a festival intended to promote communication and tolerance is met with thuggish law enforcement that prides itself on a misguided notion of how it is "protecting" its citizens. I do not believe that such harassment protects American citizens. I believe it breeds ill will and broadens the fissure between the people of the United States and the Mideast. It is not enough to say, "We are just doing our job." That rationalization has been used by henchmen throughout the ages, proving regretfully that the banality of evil continues to lie at our very doorstep.

The Evening Class profoundly regrets and condemns Abdelli's detainment at the airport and the official disregard of the festival's mission statement for further understanding and tolerance through the art of cinema. Michael Hawley and I both hope that the people of San Francisco themselves, the audiences at the festival, have helped to counter Abdelli's negative experience so that he can return to Tunisia with a clear perception that he was welcomed by San Francisco.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

SILENT CINEMA—Faust, Czech Classics & Intolerance

San Francisco audiences have developed a taste for silent cinema accompanied by accomplished theatrical organists and contemporary ensembles and three programs are coming down the pipeline that I'd be remiss not to announce.

Halloween night, as part of the 25th San Francisco Jazz Festival, F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926) will be screened at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre accompanied by the Willem Breuker Kollektief. Though health will keep Breuker from attending in person, his original score for Faust will be performed by his Kollektief.

The following night, Thursday, November 1, Aquarius Records, Arthur Magazine, and the Dead Channels Film Festival present two mindblowing and ultra rare "Czech new wave" vampire masterpieces—Jiri Barta's The Last Theft (1987) and Jaromil Jires' Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)—at the Castro Theatre with live-in-the-theater-accompaniment by telemagnetic soundtrackstars Spoonbender 1.1.1 and shimmering 10-piece touring ensemble The Valerie Project!

Also at the Castro on December 1 The Silent Film Festival offers a triplebill: Vitaphone Vaudeville, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), and Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Louis B. Mayer's Flesh and the Devil (1926), accompanied by Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

LANA TURNER—A Life of Her Own

You know how it is. I'm supposed to be covering the Arab Film Festival, or at least wrapping up my coverage of the Idaho International and the Mill Valley Film Festival. I'm supposed to be reading and reviewing a handful of books sent to me by various publishers on a half dozen film topics. I'm supposed to be hacking through the screeners stacked on my coffee table, which are at this juncture vertiginously leaning over the edge. Instead, I plop myself down in front of Turner Classic Movies and catch a morning broadcast of George Cukor's A Life Of Her Own (1950), thoroughly enjoying it along with my morning cup of Joe because—well—I'm not supposed to. A sure case of using a movie to get away from the movies. Been there?

Yes, A Life Of Her Own is a two-star meller with Lana Turner in the starring role playing a successful top model engaged in an adulterous affair with an anguished married man; but, the real star is Bronislau Kaper's haunting signature tune nominated for a Golden Globe for best original score. Apparently, when A Life Of Her Own didn't do too well at the box office, said melody was recycled two years later in Invitation (1952) so it wouldn't completely go to waste.

Hal Erickson synopsizes for All Movie Guide: "Lana Turner stars as an ambitious model who seeks her fortune in New York City. She is befriended by over-the-hill cover-girl Ann Dvorak, whose performance carries the story until she commits suicide twenty minutes into the film. Turner promises herself that she won't end up burned out like Dvorak, but as her fame grows, she is inexorably drawn into the hectic social whirl that sealed Dvorak's doom. Enjoying the favors of wealthy Ray Milland, Turner seeks out Milland's wife (Margaret Phillips), hoping to convince the woman to give up her husband. When she meets the crippled Mrs. Milland, Turner is made painfully aware of the length and breadth of the woman's love for her husband. Turner pulls out of the relationship, and we are encouraged to believe that hers will be a much happier and more fulfilling life than that of the unfortunate Ann Dvorak (ironically, in real life Ann Dvorak's final days were relatively contented ones, while Lana Turner spent her twilight years wondering where the looks, the men and the money had gone). Though not so noted in the credits, A Life of Her Own was inspired by The Abiding Vision, a novel by Rebecca West."

The reviews in 1950 were mixed. Variety excused the soap opera plotting as "polished to considerable extent" with "topnotch" performances by the femme cast under Cukor's able direction. They determined Lana Turner's performance was "a decided asset."

Bosley Crowther at the New York Times begged to differ, stating flatly, "Two years' absence from the movies obviously did not improve Lana Turner's talents as an actress or her studio's regard for what she can do." Turner's performance, Crowther explained, suffered for being "plainly self-conscious of her hair-do, her clothing, her billing and her bust." As for Lana's leading man Ray Milland, his "perpetual air of discomfort" indicated that "he had read the script." But among the shreds of the film left beside Crowther's desk, what most caught my attention in his review was the comment: "Somehow, while watching this picture, with its cliches, its lush inanities and its vacuum-sealed preoccupation with the two-bit emotions of one dame, it was difficult for this reviewer to believe that such a film had been made in this year, 1950, and with the world in the state that it is. Pictures like this were the fashion fifteen years ago, when the screen and its candy-munching audience were in a much more infantile stage."

In all fairness to time and other vagaries, it's precisely because of the world and the state it's in that A Life Of Her Own now proves to be disarming entertainment, distracting me from local responsibilities and global concerns with clever lines like "Talk to a lawyer and all you get is conversation" and "They ought to invent a new kind of ambition; one that doesn't wear out."

On a personal aside, I have to likewise express feeling heartened somewhat by the fact that 50-year-old film reviews still serve to amuse. I can only hope the same for the pros and cons here at The Evening Class.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

2007 AFF—Ordure / Garbage

If Lotfi Abdelli's award-winning turn as Bahta in Nouri Bouzid's Making Of wins you over to his promising talent, you might want to check out as well his brief appearance in the U.S. premiere of Lotfi Achour's debut short film Ordure / Garbage (2007), wherein Abdelli plays a butcher who gives his girlfriend "full blows to shut her up and full condoms to make up for it." Abdelli applies the brooding intensity maximized in Making Of to his swift and questionably attractive characterization of the butcher in Garbage. The pitch of his intensity is reminiscent of early DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Edward Norton in American X. Abdelli's got the chops, the looks, the conflicted sensuality, and a long future to hone it perfect.

The lead actor in Achour's short slice of life, however, is Nôomane Hamda as Mounir, a night watchman who becomes comforted in his life of isolation and loneliness by the strange passion he cultivates for rubbish left behind by his neighbor Latifa, with whom he is secretly in love. Mounir takes possession of Latifa's garbage and becomes the secret witness of her life, which is anything but dull. This raises the ugly head of what I discussed with Cartoneros director Ernesto Livon-Grosman: just how private is our garbage anyways?

Cross-published on Twitch.


Stephen Randall, the Deputy Editor at Playboy magazine and editor of Playboy's monthly Interviews, has applied his editorial talents to compiling The Playboy Interviews: The Directors, published by MPress. He has selected 17 subjects who best represent a window into the creative minds of some of cinema's true artists—alphabetically, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, Joel and Ethan Coen, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Federico Fellini, John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee, David Mamet, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder—spanning nearly 40 years from the June 1963 interview with Billy Wilder to the November 2001 interview with the Coen Brothers. Eastwood and Stone are each interviewed twice, decades apart, to provide a fuller grasp of the span of their careers.

Publishers Weekly has stated "the lengthy, unpredictable interviews prove compelling throughout" and add that "Since the interviews have no length restriction, interviewers are able to probe deep into their subjects and allow them to ramble expansively. While some of the material is dated, most of the interviews were conducted during particularly fertile periods for their subjects, resulting in a detailed snapshot of where these directors were at pivotal career moments."

Booklist cautions that "Serious cineastes may be disappointed that the pieces offer less on individual movies than on filmmaking in general and personality-driven anecdotes. Their digressions, however, often fascinate…."

As the book's liner notes lay out: "Movies are today's lingua franca, speaking to us on an emotional and intellectual level that no other art form can match. While there have been many great films, only a few directors have raised the motion picture to its highest level. In The Playboy Interviews: The Directors, 17 of the world's most widely respected and creative filmmakers discuss with the writers of Playboy what drives and inspires their craft."

In his introduction to the collection Stephen Randall relates that "Hugh Hefner has said that his view of the world was forged in the darkened theaters of his youth." Hefner's editorial approach towards the interviews in his magazine, however, came about in 1962, when Playboy was a mere eight years old. As the liner notes detail: "Hugh Hefner was shown a partial manuscript by a young writer named Alex Haley. The manuscript was actually a transcript of an interview Haley had done with Miles Davis. Hefner was struck by two things: Davis's fiery intelligence, and the fact that the transcript didn't focus strictly on music, but gave Davis a chance to share his views on race, government and society. Hefner dispatched Haley to continue interviewing Davis, and ran the edited transcript as the first Playboy Interview."

Along with Playboy's centerfold pleasures, reading these interviews as a young boy admittedly had much to do with how I approach my subjects today, striving not only for in-depth appreciation of their current projects, but situating them within the political and socio-cultural climate of our times. "Directors often talk to the media to promote their films," Randall stresses in his introduction, "but rarely do they get the opportunity to speak about other aspects of their lives, including the forces and events that have shaped their vision."

I look forward to exploring this volume to see not only how these gifted directors think and work, but how the structure of the interviews themselves might hone my own interviewing technique here on The Evening Class. Anticipate running commentary on this volume of work in the months to come and if any of my readers are familiar with these specific interviews, please speak up.

Cross-published on Twitch.

2007 AFF—Making Of

At the 2006 Carthage Film Festival—the biannual October film festival hosted by the government of Tunisia—Nouri Bouzid's Making Of won the festival's grand prize: the Tanit d'or, or "Golden Tanit" (named for the lunar goddess of ancient Carthage; the award is in the shape of her symbol).

As the opening night feature of the 11th Annual Arab Film Festival ("AFF"), Making Of offers Bay Area audiences an intriguing conceit: Brecht in Tunisia. As the AFF program capsule cites: "Nouri Bouzid shows the audience the parallels between the creation or 'making of' a suicide bomber from an apolitical young man, and the direction of an actor in a controversial role that both he and his director are uncomfortable with. Thus, director Bouzid stages a debate within his own film concerning the causes of terrorism and the burdens on those (like him and his cast) who are bold enough to try to represent it in cinema." True to Brecht, the film makes you think more than feel and encourages argument about the ideas it suggests. Breaking the proscenium allows the ideas to gain a staged complexity.

Along with winning the Golden Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival, Lotfi Abdelli won Best Actor for his lead performance; a win he has since repeated at the Ouagadougou Panafrican Film and Television Festival (FESPACO); Le Festival International du Film d'Amour de Mons in Belgium; the Tetouan Mediterranean Film Festival in Morocco; the Tribeca Film Festival in New York; and the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily.

As Michael Hawley has indicated, Abdelli's award-winning performance as Bahta is the main reason to watch this film. Variety's Ronnie Scheib concurs that—despite the film's "erratic itinerary"—as a central character Bahta is "brilliantly conceived and thesped" and Abdelli's "edgy, agonized performance" illuminates "the tortured complexity and restlessness of Tunisian youth."

Alongside his theatre and film work, Abdelli is a professional dancer trained at the Ballet Théâtre National and the Tunisian Ballet National and engaged with Tunisia's important ballet and dance ensembles, including the Théâtre de la danse company, which he helped found. The film's early breakdancing sequences are quite thrilling and enforce the film's Brechtian premise that—hired onto the film as a break-dancer and without having read the entire script—Abdelli objects when he discovers the script has his character Bahta being indoctrinated as a terrorist. His protests force Director Bouzid to break the fourth wall and enter the take in an attempt to counter his actor's reluctance and to complete the film as both a fiction and a documentary. This layering of narratives and usage of a film within the film is fueled and sustained by Abdelli's charismatic performance and—though these cinematic devices might prove annoyingly transparent to Western audiences—it should be kept in mind (as the Festival Cinema Africano program capsule contextualizes) that Making Of "offers one of the most original and in depth approaches by Arab cinema to the issue of terrorism, developing the 'unconventional' aspect of religious extremism that is highly appealing to young people lacking self-confidence and rejected by a society that has no respect for them." (Italics mine.) Contextualizing the effort might deepen the appreciation.

A staccato "music video" of the film with some additional footage of Making Of's festival win at Carthage can be found here.

Arab Film Festival attendees have three opportunities to catch Making Of: Opening night, Thursday, 10/18, 7:30PM, Clay Theater, San Francisco; Saturday, 10/20, 9:45PM, Camera 12, San Jose; and Sunday, 10/21, 7:00PM, Roxie Cinema, San Francisco. Check the festival's website for ticketing and venue information.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

LARS AND THE REAL GIRLThe Chronicle Interview With Ryan Gosling

I thoroughly enjoyed Lars and The Real Girl when I caught it at Toronto and wrote it up at that time for The Evening Class. Since then, Dave Hudson has gathered up the critical fanfare at the Greencine Daily with his usual skill. Onto that consummate list, I add Pam Grady's interview with Ryan Gosling for the San Francisco Chronicle, wherein I discovered that Ryan was a Mousketeer and that—as I suggested—he too was thinking of Jimmy Stewart's Harvey while performing Lars.

Cross-published on Twitch. Photo courtesy of Jason Gemnich/WireImage for TIFFG.

TRIPLE BILL—Maria Montez, Sabu & Jack Smith

This last Saturday on my way to enjoy African cinema at the Mill Valley Film Festival, I picked up a copy of the San Francisco Bay Guardian at the newsstand and came across a brief mention of a Maria Montez triplebill at the Castro Theatre—Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves, The Cobra Woman, and Arabian Nights—scheduled for the following day. Suddenly, I experienced a true cinephilic dilemma: would I be "serious" and attend the sampling of New Romanian cinema at Mill Valley the following day, for which I'd already secured press passes? Or would I opt out and pay for triple slam camp?

What can I tell you? There I was, one of the first in line, to hunker down for afternoon matinees of three prime vehicles of The Queen of Technicolor. Do I regret my decision? Not in the slightest. Watching Ali Baba & The 40 Thieves, The Cobra Woman and Arabian Nights in sequence proved to be not only relaxed fun but a heady exercise in spectatorial relativity. Let me try to explain what I mean by that. I'll start with Cobra Woman, which I'd seen once before when Kenneth Anger admitted to playing hookey from high school to catch it at his local theater.

It's always fascinating to me what shifts into the realm of camp and what can be "read" by new audiences into old cinematic texts. For me this is a determinant of the shelf life of any film; precisely how it can be recontextualized to suit contemporary appetites. I know there are some who believe films should be left alone and appreciated on their originally-intended merits; I just don't think that's going to happen. It is the nature of film to be malleable. The last time I saw Cobra Woman, no one laughed when the Queen pronounced, "Fear has made them religious fanatics!" This time it got a good huzzah, indicating (I guess) that we've learned something about fear and religious fanaticism in recent years, and are ripe for a jest about it; truth, after all, often being said in jest.

For any self-respecting gay man, it's almost requisite after watching Cobra Woman that you turn to the friend beside you and demand, "Give me that cobra jewel!" [pronounced "Geef me that Coparah chewel!"]. It actually made me laugh to hear it repeated throughout the Castro audience as if a flock of tropical parrots had perched on the Castro's seatbacks. Some lines are just so fun, I guess, they make us happy to repeat them. This also has something to do, I suspect, with what Gayatri Gopinath in her pioneering study of queer diasporas in South Asian public cultures—Impossible Desires—identifies as the fantasy space wherein queer spectators can contest and resist heteronormative hegemonies. It is in fantastic and exaggerated scenarios that queers can frequently imagine and insert themselves as being or belonging. That's not to say that anyone who feels a little different growing up can't access fantastic scenarios, but for many young queers the access becomes necessarily restricted to these imaginary realms when, conversely, the reality of their very being is questioned, denied and rendered invisible or, worse yet, non-existent. If you can't be the sentence on the page; then you must discover yourself in the margin. If you can't be like the other little boys on your block; then you must see yourself in another world of fantastic creatures engaged in tremendous adventures. A towel wrapped around the head will turn you into Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin. At least, that's what happened to me when I wrapped a towel around my head.

The association of Maria Montez with queerdom is well documented, especially with regard to Jack Smith's adoration and iconic reclamation of her. And for myself, aware of Smith's adulation, and aware of Smith's key role in the development of experimental cinema in the U.S., it is impossible for me to watch these Technicolor fantasies without factoring Smith into the viewing equation and to contemplate the seminal role of queer resistance in the development of the American avante-garde.

Gary Morris writes for Bright Lights Film Journal: "Smith was raised on Hollywood kitsch, and … his patron saint Maria Montez—to whom he built an altar and prayed—inspired him. Always a good talker, he insisted on Montez's importance as an actress to all who would listen (and there were many). He called her 'the Holy One' and 'the Miraculous One.' After a screening of one of her films, he told a friend, 'The Miraculous One was raging and flaming. Those are the standards for art.'

"Smith's own standards for art let him refashion Montez and the whole ethos of tinny Orientalia, low-budget intrigues, and what he called Universal's 'cowhide thongs and cardboard sets' into Dionysian revels that were both wild camp and subtle polemic in upsetting an overflowing apple cart of norms: heterosexuality, narrative, social and sexual and aesthetic repressions."

Apparently Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures—his best known controversial featurette—was directly formulated from Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves, even superimposing portions of the Ali Baba soundtrack. Flaming Creatures likewise mocked the elaborate cataclysm of Cobra Woman. Smith achieved his earthquake, Morris advises, "in the simplest manner imaginable—by shaking the camera." (For those curious, time has rendered Flaming Creatures tame enough to be available for download on Ubuweb.)

Senses of Cinema contributor Constantine Verevis writes: "According to writer Ronald Tavel, Smith, while working as an usher at Chicago's Orpheum Theater in 1951, was introduced to the films of Maria Montez when news of her untimely death inspired a retrospective: 'It was then and there [that Smith] became familiar with the star whom he has since referred to as The Wonderful One or The Marvelous One. He felt that all the secrets of the cinema lay in careful study of [that] woman.' Montez embodied for Smith the 'magic' of the movies and his film and later theatre work is filled with references to specific Montez pictures, and to Hollywood exotica more generally."

Smith elevated Montez in his aesthetic manifesto "The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez", published in Film Culture 27 (Winter 1962–63): 28–36. When Mary Jordan's recent documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis was screened at New York's Film Forum, Karen Cooper asserted: "If there is a heaven for the wonderfully bizarre, Jack Smith resides there, accompanied by his patron saint, Maria Montez."

So what was it exactly about Maria Montez that created such an aesthetic arrest in Jack Smith? Clearly, as Wikipedia enunciates, "Her Latin beauty soon made her the centerpiece of Universal's Technicolor costume adventures, notably the six in which she was teamed with Jon Hall—Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943), Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), Gypsy Wildcat (1944), and Sudan (1945)." Wikipedia further specifies that Arabian Nights—the first in this series of exotic tales released by Universal during the war years—"bears the distinction of being the first film by Universal to use the 3 strip Technicolor film process."

Was it that when she looked at herself, Montez declared: "I am so beautiful I scream with joy"? It couldn't have been her acting. In fact, after Arabian Nights I smiled to myself when I overheard one guy say to his companion, "She almost acted in that one!" But—if not her acting—it might have been her ability to make believe. In Smith's own assessment of Montez, he wrote: "At least in America a Maria Montez could believe she was the Cobra Woman, the Siren of Atlantis, Scheherezade, etc. She believed and thereby made the people who went to her movies believe." Robert Siodmak, director of Cobra Woman, concurs: "Montez was a great personality and believed completely in her roles—if she was to play a princess you had to treat her like one all through lunch ... method acting before its time, you might say!" And Lucita, Maria's sister, recounts this advice given to her by Maria: "The first thing a young lady should do for being an actress is to believe she is the most beautiful and important of all the women who live on Earth. In other words, behave as if you were a queen. Do not be afraid in front of any of the directors, not even how exigent and ill-tempered they could look to you. Remember, my dear Lucita, it is the public and not them, who has the last word."

Steve Gallagher quotes from Smith's essay "The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez" for his Filmmaker review of Mary Jordan's documentary: "Critics are writers. They like writing—and written characters.... Maria Montez's appeal [on the other hand] was on a purely intuitive level. She was the bane of critics—that person whose effect cannot be known by words, described by words, flaunts words (her image spoke)."

That quality of immersing oneself in make-believe is further characterized by its apparent lack of politicization. Having recently interviewed the talent behind The Kite Runner regarding the painstaking detail with which they re-created Afghanistan before the Russian invasion and the rise of the Taliban, Technicolor's insouciance borders on the negligent, if it weren't so preposterously entertaining. Feigned accents in broken English transform Hollywood actors into Arabs, though Andy Devine doesn't even try in Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves. His colloquial inflections reek of backwater America. The slipshod pretense is charming.

So along with the reclamative project of queer spectatorship, Arabian Nights and Cobra Woman offers the intriguing casting of Sabu through Hollywood's reductive lens of ethnic hierarchy. Sabu Dastagir was a child star allegedly "discovered" in Mysore, India by British producer Alexander Korda in the mid-30s who went on to star in Orientalist vehicles throughout the 1940s and 1950s, first in the UK and then in Hollywood. Though to the generation of his time Sabu might have been seen as "having made it", a symbol of immigrant success, contemporary theorists such as Gayatri Gopinath interpret Sabu as "nothing more than an anachronistic emblem of Orientalist and colonialist fantasies of perpetually childlike, effeminized 'native' men." Watching his lithe, lovely body, there is something very sad about the image of Sabu on the screen. As Gopinath summarizes: "Sabu, we are told, attempted to transform his childhood success in British cinema into adult stardom in Hollywood, only to be plagued by racism within both sites. His career steadily declined in the post-World War II era, and in his penultimate role he was reduced to playing the native 'boy' sidekick—at the age of thirty-eight—opposite Robert Mitchum in the 1963 jungle adventure film Rampage. Sabu thus remains perpetually frozen as the 'wonderful, graceful, frank, intelligent child' who so entranced British film director Michael Powell, who cast him in the lead role in The Thief of Baghdad in 1940." (2005:70)

And finally, as if to counter the folly of all cinematic illusion, a moviegoer must content themselves within the moment of projection, when the movies exist in and of themselves flickering colorfully in the dark, outside of the troubling parameters of the real and ragged lives of their casts. Maria Montez died of drowning in her bath tub after suffering a heart attack. Jon Hall killed himself, unable to bear the pain of encroaching cancer. Sabu—doomed to be forever youthful—died at 39 from a heart attack. Even Vera West—responsible for designing Maria Montez's lustrous gowns for Cobra Woman (let alone the wedding gown of the Bride of Frankenstein)—was found dead in her pool, by suicide, escaping blackmail.

All the more reason to celebrate the movies, and the make believe that has survived.