"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Gut Renovation [Su Friedrich, 2013]

Su Friedrich on the rooftop of her former building in Williamsburg.

In case you didn’t catch it over at the Brooklyn Rail, here’s an interview I did with Su Friedrich about her gentrification diary-doc, Gut Renovation.

Su was an excellent to talk to, and we ended up walking around Williamsburg and visiting her old building on 118 North 11th Street. Here’s the facade of the historic building, which used to be the site of the Hecla Iron Works factory:

As I witness the city that I grew up in morph into something unrecognizable, documentaries like these seem all the more urgent. Gut Renovation is effective because it’s angry—as I think more of us should be. There’s an important outcropping of anti-gentrification films that are channelling anger, along with docs that depict failed urban experiments (Detropia, The The Pruitt-Igoe Myth). Though they vary widely in scope and tone, all of these films depict urban decay, and the moral decay of the government that kowtows to moneyed corporate interests over the basic needs of its people.

Deleuze on Taxi Driver [Scorsese, 1976]

Deleuze writes: “In Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the driver wavers between killing himself and committing a political murder and, replacing these projects by the final slaughter, is astonished by it himself, as if the carrying out concerned him no more than did the preceding whims. The actuality of the action-image, the virtuality of the affection image can interchange, all the more easily for having fallen into the same indifference.

In the third place, the sensory motor action or situation has been replaced by the stroll, the voyage and the continual return journey. The voyage has found in America the formal and material conditions of renewal. It takes place through internal or external necessity, through the need for flight. But now it loses the initiatory aspect that it had in the German journey (even in Wenders’s films) and that it kept, despite everything in the beat journey (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider). It has become urban voyage, and has become detached from the active and affective structure which supported it, directed it, gave
it even vague direction. How could there be a nerve fibre or sensory motor-structure between the driver of Taxi Driver and what he sees on the pavement in his driving mirror? And in Lumet, everything happens in continual trips and return journeys, at ground level, in aimless movements where characters behave like windscreen wipers (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico). This is in fact the clearest aspect of the modern voyage. It happens in “any space whatever marshalling yard,” disused warehouse, the undifferentiated fabric of the city–in opposition to actions which most often unfolded in the qualified spacetime of the old realism. As Cassavetes says, it is a question of undoing space, as the story, the plot or the action.”

[From Cinema I: The Movement-Image, by Gilles Deleuze]

Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?

I found it – the utterly asinine and sexist beer commercial that Scorsese referred to this 1993 letter to the New York Times.The ad is obviously satirizing a Fellini film, and was part of a larger campaign with the tagline, “Why ask why? Try Bud Dry.”

Fostering willful idiocy as a sales tactic? Yup, sounds like America.

Why Make Fellini the Scapegoat for New Cultural Intolerance? [Letter to the New York Times, 25 Nov 1993]

Eat your cultural vegetables, mangia!

Recently I came across this letter to the Times penned by none other than Martin Scorsese, a week after Fellini’s death. It elucidates, in no uncertain terms, why the “Cultural Vegetables” argument is so dangerous, because it so often leads to (or stems from) intolerance and ignorance. Scorsese rightly focuses not on individual films but a generalized allergy to work perceived as too dull, difficult, or foreign. (It’s sad that the “new” cultural intolerance feels very old hat by now). For all intents and purposes, this letter could be a manifesto for World Cinema Foundation, Scorsese’s incredibly important initiative to preserve films from all over the world.

To the Editor:

“Excuse Me; I Must Have Missed Part of the Movie” (The Week in Review, 7 November) cites Federico Fellini as an example of a filmmaker whose style gets in the way of his storytelling and whose films, as a result, are not easily accessible to audiences. Broadening that argument, it includes other artists: Ingmar Bergman, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Cage, Alain Resnais and Andy Warhol.

It’s not the opinion I find distressing, but the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding. Was it necessary to publish this article only a few days after Fellini’s death? I feel it’s a dangerous attitude, limiting, intolerant. If this is the attitude toward Fellini, one of the old masters, and the most accessible at that, imagine what chance new foreign films and filmmakers have in this country.

It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.

It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?

The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.

The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance. It also unfortunately confirms the worst fears of European filmmakers.

Is this closedmindedness something we want to pass along to future generations?

If you accept the answer in the commercial, why not take it to its natural progression:
Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?
Ultimately, who will decide who “we” are?

—Martin Scorsese
[New York, 19 Nov 1993]