“Subversive” is defined as “seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution; disruptive; inflammatory.” Films may be considered aesthetically or culturally subversive, or both. Subversive cinema has been with us since the silent era; early examples include Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (though it wasn’t considered subversive at the time), Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, and Luis Buñuel’s notorious L’Age d’Or, one of the first films to be widely banned (and still banned today in several countries).
Many films deemed as disruptive go on to achieve cult status and garner a fervent following. The topic of subversive or transgressive cinema has also received serious consideration by scholars, most notably in Amos Vogel’s seminal study “Film as a Subversive Art,” which catalogues over 600 films that fit the definition, and the more recent “Cult Films” by UC San Diego Professor Allan Havis.
Just in time to present an alternative option for streaming, UC Santa Barbara’s Carsey-Wolf Center (CWC) is presenting its “Subversives” discussion series, featuring five films spanning 70 years and three countries. The slate ranges from Chaplin’s much-maligned The Great Dictator to Parasite, the 2019 winner of the Best Picture Academy Award. The series begins with Sorry to Bother You, a provocative satire of American capitalism and white corporate culture, and also includes television’s groundbreaking Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. By including Pee-Wee Herman’s show, series curator and host Miguel Penabella, a PhD candidate in Film & Media Studies at UCSB, explains that he “wanted to imagine a broader, expansive idea of ‘Subversives’ as well, including films that may be aesthetically or commercially subversive or works that may have generated a cult following,” noting that the Playhouse fits the bill.
Post-screening discussions include conversations with filmmakers, critics, and film scholars, followed by lively Q&A sessions. Films examined include:
• Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018)
• Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019)
• Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1942)
• Pee-Wee Herman’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1990)
• Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019)
Browse all programs in Subversives.
Writer-Director Darya Zhuk’s debut film Crystal Swan (2018) centers around Velya, a young woman seeking to escape the miserable conformity of life in Belarus in 1996. Velya is an aspiring DJ whose house music provides some much-needed escapism, but like many others her age she dreams of fleeing to America—or perhaps more accurately, a fantasy America where every teen has their own bedroom and cell phone and parents knock before they enter. That’s not Velya’s life in Minsk, where she must contend with an overbearing mother, little money, few job prospects, and the general post-communism malaise.
In this “tragic comedy” Velya schemes to obtain a visa from the American embassy, which involves faking a work phone number and other machinations. Velya learns to her dismay that the embassy intends to call that number to verify her employment and other details. Through a series of misadventures she ends up spending the next two days with the dysfunctional family that actually owns the telephone number, trying to convince them to lie for her when the embassy calls. As you might expect, the presence of a weird girl from Minsk trying to use the family so she can flee to Chicago leads to an increasing number of complications, not all of them comic.
In the best tradition of Eastern European literature and cinema, Zhuk tells a tale of desolate realism colored by farcical and absurdist elements (think Good Soldier Svejk or Milos Forman). Her film is set at a time of turmoil in Belarus, as the fledgling post-Soviet democracy succumbed to dictatorship. This ethos is mirrored in Zhuk’s protagonist, a young woman faced with a bleak future if she doesn’t make a run for it, and quickly. In telling her story Crystal Swan makes astute use of mid-1990s iconography; pre-digital cameras and phones (including phone booths), large posters on teenagers’ walls, cassette mix tapes handed from person to person, VHS tapes that jam in the VCR, and a pervasive, almost repressive, sense of materiality. It’s as if the accumulation of mundane objects provides an antidote to the wretchedness of everyday life. When these objects break down or lose their allure our heroine is forced to seize other possibilities.
As the film charts its course from the ironies and absurdities of the opening scenes to a bracing grittiness, it makes no guarantees for Velya’s successful escape nor for her happiness if she does. Darya Zhuk made her own successful escape and is now based in New York City, where she attended Columbia University, and Crystal Swan reflects memories of her own immigrant hopes as inextricably mingled with the uncertainties of forging a new life in a strange country.
Watch Crystal Swan Director Darya Zhuk.
Blending movie genres can be a tricky business, one often as not doomed to failure. Combining horror and comedy is especially fraught, since the two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive if not diametrically opposed in tone & subject matter. A few brave filmmakers have forged ahead regardless, including Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the screenwriters behind the sleeper hit Zombieland (2009).
Successful genre-bending is not something that can be tackled haphazardly. In conversation with UC Santa Barbara Pollock Theater Director Matt Ryan the duo discuss the many considerations that go into fashioning such a script, including finding the right horror/comedy balance while honoring the audience’s unavoidable genre expectations. As with any screenplay it’s a matter of making good decisions along the way; for example, Reese and Wernick determined at the outset that their zombies would be the fast-moving kind, a la 28 Days Later, and not the shambling variety popularized by Night of the Living Dead. They also elected to begin their tale with the zombie apocalypse well under way and almost taken for granted by our intrepid heroes. Subsequently there’s very little exposition about cause and scope to slow the pacing. As the writers note, it’s really not relevant to their story.
Reese and Wernick stress that having the right cast is absolutely vital to any film’s success, since if the actors are right for their roles they can boost the script to another level (and if not, it’s a train wreck). Fortunately the Zombieland cast includes such stalwarts as Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and the near-legendary Bill Murray, all experienced and adept at playing comedy and drama with equal aplomb. (And in case you were wondering, yes, Bill Murray is very much the same personality off-screen as on.) The scripters were able to do some re-writing as needed to suit the actors’ personas, which in their view made the director’s job a little easier and enhanced the final result.
Track down Zombieland, and then tune into this installment of Script to Screen. You’ll be entertained and hopefully better prepared for World War Z, if and when…
Watch Script to Screen: Zombieland.
In the early 1970s a young Los Angeles-based artist named William Wegman brought home the first of what would be many Weimaraners and named him Man Ray, after the Surrealist artist and filmmaker who was one of his formative influences. Wegman considered his dog a companion, but Man Ray aspired to be more. Wegman, an accomplished photographer, soon discovered that Man Ray loved to work in front of the camera, donning outfits and striking poses like he was to the manor born. The photos that resulted could be viewed as charming and eccentric curios built around Man Ray’s straight-faced presence, or as sardonic commentary on the art world and its preoccupations, fashion, fame, etc. Man Ray was soon joined by the near-legendary Fay Ray and later by assorted puppies. His work with Weimaraner supermodels changed his life: it made him famous, it remains his most popular artworks, and following relocation to New York that work continues with his current canine muses Topper and Flo.
Though inarguably best known to the general public for his dogs’ portraits, Wegman is also an established and widely-exhibited painter, filmmaker, and creator of art installations. The installations began with La Jolla Vista View, commissioned by the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego. The piece is set at the edge of the campus overlooking the bustling I-5 freeway and “greater La Jolla,” and consists of a large etched brass plaque atop a stone base with a telescope close at hand. The etching depicts the scene as it looked in 1984, very different than today’s view, and the telescope is the type often found at scenic overlooks (but free to use). Though not originally intended as a parody of said overlooks, Wegman notes that “it more or less evolved – or de-evolved – into that.” The title La Jolla Vista View is itself a gentle send-up since “vista” and view” mean precisely the same thing. Whatever the satirical intent (or lack thereof) informing the project, it has become a popular meeting spot for students and staff working in the campus Theatre District; Wegman says he’s happy to “settle for that” as a response to the installation. The salient point is that, like most of Wegman’s work, the piece offers layers of meaning if the visitor is open to them.
On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Bill Wegman in his Chelsea (NYC) studio in 2015 and meeting his family and Weimaraner brood. I’d been a fan of his work for many years and naturally had some trepidation about meeting him, since in my line of work meeting someone you admire can and often does end awkwardly if not badly. Thankfully, not the case in this instance; the Wegman family were warm and gracious, and as expected Bill has a wonderful sense of humor. I mention this because I believe these qualities and his successful integration of family and work infuse his art. Believe it or not, this is not true of every artist.
Watch William Wegman: La Jolla Vista View – A Conversation with Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.
When Terry Allen left Lubbock, Texas to pursue his youthful ambitions it’s doubtful he could have foreseen his status nearly six decades later as a legendary painter, conceptual artist, composer, and musician. Terry’s work is unusually diverse but certain themes are common: the mysteries of love, surviving loss, and the consequences of violence are just a few, often expressed with sardonic humor and a heightened sense of irony.
Terry is particularly celebrated as a chronicler of the off-beat, the surreal, and the just plain weird in American life. In his interview with the Stuart Collection’s Mary Beebe and Mathieu Gregoire, Terry notes that his appreciation for the off-kilter arose in part from his childhood in Lubbock, a highly conservative place with its share of colorful and disreputable characters. A burgeoning iconoclast, he fled Lubbock for Los Angeles in the mid-1960s seeking to establish himself as an artist. It was only after disavowing Lubbock and West Texas for many years that Terry came to appreciate the influence of his upbringing on his worldview and his art. This understanding was beautifully expressed in his groundbreaking 1979 release “Lubbock (On Everything)” which contains two of Your Humble Correspondent’s favorites, “Truckload of Art” and “The Collector (and the Art Mob).” “Lubbock…” along with his earlier conceptual album “Juarez” cemented Terry Allen’s reputation as an “outlaw country” artist, a designation he’s not comfortable with as he finds it limiting, if not meaningless.
Terry also discusses his fascination with trees, understandable in someone growing up in a place “so flat that if you stare at the horizon hard enough you can see the back of your head.” This attraction inspired his creation of a commission for Stuart Collection entitled “Trees,” a collection of three metal-clad trees: a singing tree that plays an eclectic mixture of music; a talking (or poetry) tree that plays various spoken word pieces; and a silent tree placed in front of UC San Diego’s Geisel Library. The singing and talking trees are blended into a eucalyptus grove, lending an air of both mystery and discovery to the passersby. As with many of the Stuart Collection pieces, the objective is to “bring the inexplicable” to campus, and Terry Allen is well-versed in the enigmatic.
Watch Terry Allen: Trees – A Conversation with Stuart Collection.