The Truth 24 Times Per Second

The Carsey-Wolf Center’s Spring 2019 screening series at UC Santa Barbara explores the international legacies of cinematic New Waves, including films from France, Cuba, China, Italy, and Iran. Whatever their disparate eras or sources, these selections share an emphasis on stylistic and narrative experimentation, a rejection of traditional film conventions, a sympathetic response to youth culture, an insistence on emotional verisimilitude, and a critical examination of contemporary social and political issues.

Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (France-Japan/1959), written by novelist Marguerite Duras, uses the post-war affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect as the basis for a poignant meditation on memory and forgetfulness. The two struggle with their differing perceptions of the Hiroshima bombing and its lingering effects, both societal and personal (one of which is the end of their affair). Resnais, a former editor, employs a dense, elliptical narrative structure that includes documentary footage and brief flashbacks to the lovers’ previous lives, among other innovations. Resnais was a generation older than Truffaut, Godard, and other French New Wave filmmakers, but his innovations proved influential on their work.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (Cuba/1968) is a complex character study set in Havana during a period of social turmoil, between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis. The protagonist, Sergio, is a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer who elects to remain in Cuba after his wife and friends flee to Miami. Living a rootless existence in an atmosphere of anomie, Sergio is soon caught up in the social and political Cold War forces engulfing Cuba, and the post-revolution economic upheavals that are causing his privileged class to disappear. As in Renais’ film the narrative which unfolds is fragmented and highly subjective, in a style meant to evoke the process of memory and that requires active participation from the spectator.

Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (China, 1987), based on the novel by Nobel laureate Mo Yan, chronicles life in a rural Chinese village during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Though seemingly more conventional in style and narrative structure than other New Wave films, Red Sorghum shares its determination to challenge Hollywood conventions, eschewing ersatz sophistication and easy sentimentality in favor of simplicity and emotional directness, expressed in unromanticized depictions of poverty, sexual abuse, and sudden violence. The overall effect at times approaches a state not unlike magic realism. The film was also distinctive for its time and place in centering its story on a young girl, an emphasis which abetted a critique of Chinese society’s traditional sexual mores and treatment of women.

Though diverse in their blending of themes and techniques, what emerges from viewings of these and other New Wave films is a renewed sense of the cinema’s potential as a narrative art form, one illuminating aspects of the human condition far surpassing the boundaries of Hollywood storytelling.

Browse more programs in Carsey-Wolf Center.

Oy Vey – The Strange Stories of Yiddishland

Unlike most languages, which are spoken by the residents of a particular area or by members of a particular nationality, Yiddish – at the height of its usage – was spoken by millions of Jews of different nationalities all over the globe.

Eddy Portnoy’s book mines century-old Yiddish newspapers to expose the seamy underbelly of pre-WWII New York and Warsaw, the two major centers of Yiddish culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He calls it an underground history of downwardly mobile Jews.

He relates true stories of Jewish drunks, murderers, wrestlers, psychics and beauty queens, all plucked from the pages of Yiddish dailies, revealing unusual and unexpected aspects of Jewish urban life to an audience at UC Santa Barbara. His book “Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press” is one part Isaac Bashevis Singer, one part Jerry Springer – irreverent, unvarnished, and frequently hilarious compendium of stories providing a window into an unknown Yiddish world that was.

Watch — The Strange Stories of Yiddishland: What the Yiddish Press Reveals about the Jews.

Does Trump Have a Middle East Policy?

The Trump administration has clear objectives in the Middle East, but there is a wide gap between those objectives and the methods employed to achieve them. That’s according to Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama and current fellow at the Washington Institute. Ross spoke recently at UC Santa Barbara, breaking down President Trump’s Middle East policy into three key elements: counter-ISIS, counter-Iran, and achieving the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians.

When it comes to ISIS, Ross says the president’s strategy is working in part, but is incomplete. The military effort to defeat the terror group has been largely successful, but ISIS will leave behind a power vacuum. Ross says without a comprehensive plan for reconstruction, security, governance and the inclusion of Sunnis in place, we risk another, similar terror group filling the vacuum.

In Iran, Ross says the Trump administration is pursuing a maximum pressure strategy, hoping to squeeze the regime with sanctions until it is forced to give up its nuclear program. Ross says a similar plan has made some headway with North Korea, but there is a major difference: the Iran nuclear deal. Ross says it will be difficult to put the necessary pressure on Iran when the US is the only country that has pulled out of the deal. Additionally, Ross says the administration has been largely absent from a growing conflict in the region concerning Iranian surface-to-surface missiles being sent to Syria, threatening Israel.

Finally, when it comes to Israel itself, Ross says the Trump administration is pursuing a deal with the Palestinians, but has made some missteps. Ross argues the approach of getting Arab leaders involved with negotiations was a step in the right direction, but the execution of the plan pushed Palestinians away from the table, and has ignored the recent actions of Mohammed Bin Salman in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While Ross argues the Trump administration lacks sufficient strategy in three key areas of Middle East policy, he believes there are relatively simple changes the president could make. In the fight against ISIS, Ross lays out a plan to ensure the terror group is not replaced by something worse. In Iran, he predicts an opportunity to negotiate with Russia on both sanctions and a deal to keep Iranian weapons out of Syria. And, he even has some suggestions for how to achieve the ultimate deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Watch Does Trump Have a Middle East Policy?

Is the Possibility of a Unified Korea Lost?

Two decades ago, Harold Koh thought he would soon see North and South Korea reunited. Today, the Yale professor who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations says he no longer expects it will happen in his lifetime, if ever. Koh explained why he believes a series of missteps by Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump have stopped progress toward a unified peninsula during a recent talk at UC Santa Barbara.

Koh has dealt with the challenges of North and South Korea since before he was born. His mother was trapped in North Korea when the country was divided after WWII. She and her family hiked for days to the border, and were able to make it back to Seoul. His father worked in politics, but was forced to seek asylum in the United States after the South Korean government was overthrown in 1961. Koh eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a legal scholar and diplomat.

Koh was optimistic about a peaceful resolution between North and South Korea back in 2000. He had just left Pyongyang after what was the highest-level diplomatic visit up to that point. He says there were plans in motion to move the 2002 World Cup to North Korea with a unified Korean team. But, when George W. Bush took office and named North Korea as part of the “axis of evil,” Koh says those plans, and any hope of uniting the countries, died.

As much as Koh disagrees with the Bush administration’s approach to North Korea, he is even more critical of how President Trump has handled the situation. Koh says the summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un was a mistake, because the administration should have demanded concessions from the North Korean regime before agreeing to such a high-level meeting. He also says Trump should have made clear demands from Kim, and certainly should not have publicly said he, “fell in love” with the dictator. But, Koh does believe we’re approaching a “moment of change.”

Watch The Trump Administration and North Korea

The Fallen Angel

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”
— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Since its first (initially anonymous) publication in 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein has intrigued successive generations of readers and critics while inspiring dozens of cinematic adaptations and re-imaginings. In honor of the novel’s 200th anniversary the Carsey-Wolf Center at UC Santa Barbara presented Frankenstein: Afterlives, a series of screenings and interviews that explored the lasting impact of Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece on popular culture.

The inaugural program in the series uses the 2017 biographical film Mary Shelley as a springboard for discussion about the author’s relationship to her most famous work, and the various interpretations of Frankenstein arising from scholarly examination of her life. UC Santa Barbara’s Professor Julie Carlson frames Shelley’s story, both personal and fictional, as a series of oppositions – radicalism vs. conformity, class distinctions vs. egalitarianism, intellect vs. imagination, pragmatism vs. idealism, art vs. commerce – while noting that it is only fairly recently that scholars and commentators have begun to fully grasp the complexities of Shelley’s life and work. Frankenstein is key to any such discussion, not merely because of its iconic status but because it was one of the first popular texts to foreground the post-Enlightenment confluence of art and science. The story’s resulting conflict between pure scientific inquiry and philosophical concerns constitutes an early treatise on bioethics, a topic of increasing urgency today.

Frankenstein has also been championed by modern scholars and critics as an early feminist text, but Carlson cautions that this interpretation is dependent upon a consensus definition of “feminism” and is therefore debatable. According to Carlson it may be argued with equal validity that the novel was autobiographically-inspired, an allegorical reaction to Shelley’s own upbringing as, in Carlson’s words, “an experiment of radical parents.” Shelley was doubtless keenly aware of the oppositions mentioned above and incorporated them into her work, but she doesn’t resolve them neatly for the reader; rather than a destination, her interest was in the exploration. The many other possible interpretations of Frankenstein – as cautionary fable, post-revolutionary tract, political allegory, critique of English Romanticism, etc. – are a tribute to the novel’s many facets and confirmation of its status as a vaunting work of imagination.

Watch Frankenstein: Afterlives – Mary Shelley