Monthly Archives: November 2014

Blackboards (2000)

Teachers looking for students in the wilderness.

Teachers looking for students in the wilderness.

You won’t find Kurdistan on the map. But it’s very real to millions of Kurds. The region they live in has been battered by conflict for centuries, and the boundaries have shifted over and over again. After WWI Kurdistan was divided up among four neighboring countries, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Somehow the Kurds have managed to hang on to their culture and their language in spite of this. In some areas they’ve even gained a fair amount of political and economic clout. But there are also large numbers of Kurds who live as nomads, wandering through the countryside. This life has always been difficult. In recent years, with violence erupting all over the Middle East, it has become nearly impossible.

In her film Blackboards, Samira Makhmalbaf focusses on the Kurds who spend their lives travelling on foot through a harsh and desolate landscape. The story revolves around two teachers who are wandering across the mountains of Iran, hoping to find someone who will pay them for lessons. One runs across a group of boys who are smuggling contraband. The other falls in with a band of nomads who are lost in the wilderness. It turns out all of them are trying to cross the border into Iraq.

It’s clear these people lead hard lives, but those of us who have always had food on the table and a roof over our head probably can’t ever imagine how much suffering they’ve endured. Makhmalbaf slowly reveals pieces of their history, giving us glimpses of the violence they’ve been subjected to, but she’s not trying to win our sympathy. She’s not trying to bring tears to our eyes. Instead, she’s opening a window on the world these people live in.

Hiding until a helicopter passes.

Hiding until a helicopter passes.

Makhmalbaf somehow manages to combine rigorous objectivity with breathtaking poetry. She’s a born filmmaker.* She seems to have an intuitive understanding of sound and image. Blackboards is wonderfully simple. We follow two groups of people walking across a barren landscape, watching their faces, listening to them talk. The mountains and valleys that stretch across the horizon, dwarfing these frail travellers, have a stark, surreal quality. They seem both brutally harsh and strangely ethereal. Makhmalbaf uses music sparingly, and so much of the time these people are enveloped by an enormous silence, broken only by the sound of footsteps, scuffling across the dirt, clattering over stones.

The teachers are trying to sell their services, but nobody wants them. For people like this who are struggling just to survive, the idea of wasting time on luxuries like reading and writing seems pointless. An so the teachers, who start out aggressively, insisting that everybody needs what they’re offering, end up becoming beggars, following these desperate people, hoping to earn a piece of bread. At first the teachers can’t even get anyone to talk to them. Both the smugglers and the nomads are deeply suspicious of strangers. They have good reason to be. The boys make their living by acting as mules, carrying contraband across the border, trying not to get shot in the process. Having lived longer, the nomads have suffered more. They’ve persevered through years of conflict between Iran and Iraq, as well as two invasions by the US. The lone woman in the tribe is sullen and stoic. Even after marrying one of the teachers, she answers his questions in single syllables. Later we learn that she’s one of the few who survived when Saddam Hussein bombarded the city of Halabja with chemical weapons. She has no patience for useless talk. She’s too busy trying to make it through another day.

And that’s all the teachers are able to do. At the end of the film, they have nothing to show for their efforts. Border guards fire on the child smugglers, and the boys run for their lives. The nomads manage to cross into Iraq, but the teacher who was travelling with them chooses to stay behind. His divorce from his wife is as simple and quick as their marriage. And she walks off toward the horizon, carrying his blackboard with her.

Wandering endlessly through an unforgiving landscape.

Wandering endlessly through an unforgiving landscape.

The fact that she’s the daughter of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf might have something to do with it. Maybe it’s just in her blood.

If You’re Gonna Show 35….

NB 1

A few weeks ago I went to the New Beverly to see some movies. I actually saw two separate screenings, a Sam Peckinpah double bill and a William Witney double bill. I want to start by saying that I appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to showing films in 35mm (or on occasion 16mm). Digital is fine, and given the economics of distribution and exhibition, there’s no way we’re going back. But it’s important to remember that, from the beginning of cinema history up until just recently, film was the standard, and that 35mm is an excellent medium for projecting an image on a screen.

That is, if you’re using a decent print. If the print’s not in god shape, you can run into all kinds of problems, and that’s why I’m writing this post. For the Witney bill, they showed Master of the World and Stranger at My Door. Stranger at My Door looked good. The print was in good condition, and it was a pleasure to see it on a big screen. On the other hand, Master of the World looked awful. The print was still pretty crisp, but the color was completely degraded, to the point where the whole movie looked pink. I doubt William Witney would have been happy if he’d been in attendance that night.

The Peckinpah bill was worse. I guess you could say the print they showed of The Getaway was acceptable, but it obviously had a lot of miles on it. Watching Junior Bonner, though, I got angry. The color was so bad, I’m not even sure you could call it color. It looked as though somebody had dumped the reels in a bathtub full of bleach. This is not the way the movie was meant to be seen.

It was especially frustrating because I loved the movie. I’d never seen Junior Bonner before, and it’s definitely one of Peckinpah’s best. Those who know him only for his action flicks don’t fully understand who he was as an artist. Junior Bonner is a low key film about a fading rodeo star who rolls into his hometown and reconnects with his family. It’s a beautiful character study, the cast is great, and Steve McQueen is especially impressive.

I’m glad that Tarantino is programming stuff like this, but he really needs to find better prints. Aside from my personal frustration at seeing a print so badly faded, I wonder what impression this gives younger viewers of 35mm. What would somebody in their early twenties think watching the Peckinpah double bill? They’d almost certainly come away with the impression that film was an inferior format, and that they were lucky to be living in the digital age.

Revival houses have always had to struggle to get decent prints, and these days it’s probably harder than ever to show movies on film. It’s great that Tarantino has a huge private collection, but he’s not doing anybody a favor by showing stuff in this condition. Older audiences will be frustrated. Younger audiences won’t get a chance to see these movies the way they were meant to be seen. And I think many filmmakers would be furious at the way their work was being presented.

So if you’re gonna show 35, it’s gotta be good 35.

The End of St. Petersburg (1927)

Aleksandr Chistyakov

Aleksandr Chistyakov

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian culture was a hotbed of innovation. In constant conversation with Europe, Russian painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers were rapidly absorbing new ideas from France, Italy and Germany, and blazing new trails of their own.

When the Revolution occurred in 1917, it only seemed to add fuel to the fire. Artists were called on to promote the creation of a new social order, and many of them responded enthusiastically. But there was a shift in direction. Now the ideal was not art for art’s sake, but art that served the people. And so the photographer Alexander Rodchenko began designing posters and packaging. Liubov Popova went from creating paintings to creating textiles. Vladimir Tatlin, known for his abstract constructions, was commissioned to build a monument to the Revolution.

Film was to play a key role in educating people about communist concepts. Since much of the population was illiterate, it was important to communicate the ideals of the Revolution without words, and film had proven its potential as a tool for propaganda. Initially filmmakers were encouraged to experiment, and people like Eisenstein, Vertov and Dovzhenko created visually dazzling features that celebrated the common man.

Among this group of innovators was Vsevelod Pudovkin. In 1927, on the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, he directed The End of St. Petersburg to commemorate the overthrow of the Tsar and the transition to a new society. The story is blunt propaganda. It tells us how the simple, honest workers rise up to defeat the soulless, corrupt capitalists. A starving farm boy comes to St. Petersburg looking for work at a factory. Hoping for help, he calls on a friend, but the friend’s wife says she has nothing to offer and turns him away. When a strike is called at the factory, he jumps at the chance for a job without realizing what he’s getting into. Caught in the middle of a chaotic situation, confused as to what’s going on, he fingers one of the strike’s leaders, who is then arrested. Realizing what he’s done, the boy sets out to correct his mistake, but runs up against the evil oppressors and is thrown in jail.

In the hands of a lesser director this would be a dreary tract. But Pudovkin takes simplistic propaganda and creates an epic canvas populated by mythic characters. And somehow, even though the characters are all archetypes, the director makes them searingly human. Much of this is because of the way Pudovkin handles the actors. In the first place, these are not movie stars. They look like ordinary people. The faces of the peasants on the farm are weathered and worn. It’s not hard to believe they’ve been ploughing these desolate fields for years. When tragedy strikes, the actors don’t dramatize their pain. Instead they confront suffering with a weary stoicism. It’s as though a life of backbreaking labor has robbed them of their emotions.

But Pudovkin doesn’t just speak through his actors. He also speaks through images. The film is a blistering visual poem. When we arrive in the city, Pudovkin doesn’t just show us a factory. He creates a montage that assaults us with the terrifying energy and sweltering heat of the Industrial Age. Giant steel wheels spin, vats spill streams of molten metal and chimneys spew vast clouds of black smoke into the sky. The workers are scorched and spattered. They look as though they’ve been pushed to their limits. And so when the factory manager insists that they put in more hours, they refuse. They’ve had enough.

A strike is called. The capitalists crush it. The boy from the farm and the leader of the strike are made soldiers and sent to fight the Germans. But rather than making the war sequences about their struggle for survival, The End of St. Petersburg takes a completely different approach. The horrific images of violence and death are intercut with scenes of stock market traders frantically buying and selling their shares. Prices climb higher and higher on the exchange as the body count rises on the battlefield. When the fighting is over, the titles tell us, “The transaction is completed. Both parties are satisfied.”

Carnage on the battlefield.

Carnage on the battlefield.

Most propaganda films end on a celebratory note. Here the final scenes are muted. The revolutionary forces overthrow the monarchy, but at great cost. After the battle is won, the soldiers who fought to take the Winter Palace are tired and hungry, on the verge of exhaustion. The woman who had turned the boy away earlier comes to the Winter Palace looking for her husband. As she climbs the steps, she comes across the boy, lying on the ground, wounded and weary. Though she sent him away earlier, now she kneels and holds him in her arms. Knowing he must be hungry, she gives him the little food she has left, a handful of potatoes. This simple, caring gesture is more powerful than any revolutionary slogan, any celebration of the workers’ triumph. Pudovkin may have been making propaganda, but ultimately he was more interested in people.

This brief period of astounding creativity in Russian cinema was short lived. As Stalin consolidated his power, he exerted more and more control, not just over filmmakers, but also writers, composers and other artists. The idealism that had lifted them to new heights, that had inspired them to make revolutionary art, was crushed. It would be decades before Russian cinema found its voice again.

Ivan Chuvelyov and Vera Baranovskaya

Ivan Chuvelyov and Vera Baranovskaya