Of Faith and Resilience

Commercial filmmaking often follows promising trends, whether consciously or not, and the result may be a spate of similarly themed movies appearing on the market at roughly the same time. For example, in the 1980s one such trend was the so-called “save the farm” films, in which Hollywood stars struggled valiantly to hold onto scenic family farms. Another short-lived but important trend was “border cinema” that dealt with tensions at the U.S.-Mexico border. When studio-funded these stories were told mostly from the American point of view; The Border (1982) with Jack Nicholson is emblematic of this approach.

Something of an outlier among border movies was Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) which, though not a box office hit, was a critical success and has proven to be immensely influential in the decades since its release. Nava tells the story of two siblings who flee Guatemala after the murders of their parents and journey to the north (el norte) along the length of Mexico. Like so many before and after them, Enrique and Rosa dream of finding a new home in the United States free of political violence and persecution. However, their faith and their resilience are tested at every step as challenges mount, leading to what must seem in hindsight an inevitable conclusion.

In interviews co-writer and director Gregory Nava traced the origins of El Norte to his experiences growing up in San Diego in a border family with relatives in Tijuana, Baja California. The young Nava crossed the border several times a week, often wondering who lived in all those cardboard shacks on the Mexican side:

“The border is unique—the only place in the world where an industrialized first-world nation shares the border with a third-world country…on one side are the Tijuana slums, on the other side—San Diego. It’s so graphic! This was the germ of the story.”

In his review Roger Ebert called El Norte “the Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and its impact is undiminished. The film is frequently shown and discussed in high school and college courses that touch on border issues, immigration, indigenous rights, and multiculturalism. In this program moderator Ross Melnick and guests Colin Gunckel and Mirasol Enríquez reflect on the genesis, production, reception, and legacy of the film in the context of both the “border cinema” of the 80s and newly emerging Chicanx filmmaking.

No matter how culturally insightful, no film can linger in the memory unless it speaks directly to audiences. El Norte is first and foremost a profoundly moving story, elevated above mere melodrama by its unblinking devotion to realism, its visual beauty, and the mesmerizing performances of the two leads, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando.

Watch Borders: El Norte.

The Future of Cinema

Since its inception in 1885 with the Lumiere Brothers’ public screening of La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon), cinema has been a collective experience, the modern equivalent of gathering around the campfire for storytelling. It continues to shape our perceptions, our attitudes, and the larger culture by providing a sort of shared mythology. However, the COVID-19 pandemic with its social restrictions has altered the ways in which films are delivered to the audience and how we process them, just as the 1918 influenza epidemic affected the nascent film industry of that era.

Scholars believe that there is much to learn by comparing and contrasting the effects of these and other outbreaks on cinema worldwide. In this roundtable discussion by six of those scholars, UC Santa Barbara professors Stephen Groening, Maggie Hennefeld, Brian Jacobson, and Jocelyn Szcepaniak-Gillece examine how the study of pandemics past – most especially the 1918 epidemic – sheds new light on how the current health crisis is reshaping the world of cinema, and whether or not those changes are likely to become permanent. Moderated by Patrice Petro, the conversation addresses such topics as questions of financial risk and exposure in the media industries as the balance of revenue sources shifts; the challenges to the movie theater’s traditional role as public space; and how reliance on streaming services has changed our fundamental understanding of cinema. The participants also explore how fears of viral infection are reshaping the literal and figurative “atmosphere” of moviegoing, since it remains to be seen if audiences (particularly older segments) will return to movie theaters in pre-pandemic numbers.

Finally, the panelists describe various strategies employed by the major studios and film distributors to adapt to changing circumstances. The consensus is that while there will always be a substantial audience of hardcore moviegoers who insist on seeing films on the big screen, the burgeoning popularity of services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney Plus, and others will continue. A pattern has already developed whereby many new releases have a brief theatrical run, after which (and in some cases during the run) they appear on digital platforms. Though initially confined to independent films this release pattern has become increasingly the pandemic-induced norm, and may eventually be limited solely to big budget blockbuster titles as marketing and distribution costs continue to skyrocket.

The specifics of the long-term future of cinema are as yet undetermined, but a close study of historical antecedents may help us to discern its outlines.

Watch Roundtable 1920/2020 – How COVID-19 is Reshaping Cinema.

Genre-bending is Not for the Faint of Heart

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.

Between Cultures

“Despite the current attempts to whitewash U.S. history, ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity is the predominant feature of the U.S. experience.” – Charles Musser

Almost from their inception, motion pictures have dealt with the question of cultural assimilation. This was certainly true in America where many of the country’s film industry founders were themselves either immigrants or the children of immigrants, in particular Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews.

In “Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties” Yale University’s renowned film historian and documentarian Charles Musser examines this issue by comparing and contrasting two related films: “The Ancient Law” (1923, Germany) and “The Jazz Singer” (1927, USA). While “The Ancient Law” is largely forgotten by today’s audiences, “The Jazz Singer” achieved lasting fame for being the first (partially) talking picture and lasting notoriety for star Al Jolson’s performance in blackface, deemed racist by modern sensibilities.

In E. A. Dupont’s “The Ancient Law,” the Orthodox Jew Baruch Mayer leaves a shtetl in Galicia for Vienna. Mayer pursues a career as a stage actor, much to the consternation of his conservative parents. Released four years later, Alan Crosland’s “The Jazz Singer” was based in part on a hit play but was also a loose adaptation of the earlier film. Baruch Mayer becomes Al Jolson’s Jakie Rabinowitz, who runs away from his strict cantor father to pursue a career as a cabaret singer after changing his name to Jack Robin. “The Jazz Singer” was an immediate hit and made Jolson a star overnight. Musser’s research refutes the commonly-held notion that Jolson was himself a racist, citing his and the film’s popularity with African American audiences at the time. Jolson was considered a friend by the African American community who advocated hiring black actors for stage roles, and his blackface performances were seen as positive portrayals by the very people we assume were offended.

Further, Musser argues that the depictions of the assimilation process in both films were essentially optimistic. In each case the protagonist is able to maintain or reclaim their cultural identity in spite of prevailing attitudes, and to cross the line between two uneasily co-existing cultures without the necessity of fully assimilating into either. Both films are also idealistic in the sense that they downplay the toxicity of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. Nevertheless, they (sadly) retain their relevance in the modern world.

Watch — Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties: From The Ancient Law to The Jazz Singer with Charles Musser – Holocaust Living History Workshop

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.