Daily Archives: December 31, 2019

AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL + WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES

My contribution to MUBI Notebook’s Fantasy Double Features of 2019 (posted in late December). — J.R.

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NEWAn Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, China)

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OLD: Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)

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Some of the differences between the late Hu Bo (1988-2017) and his mentor Béla Tarr may be just as important as their similarities. The latter made black comedies whereas An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu’s only feature, doesn’t find anything to laugh about. Even though the metaphysical and novelistic cast of both artists allows them to treat a group of lost individuals as a cosmos, with Tarr’s visible whale carcass in Werckmeister Harmonies apparently rhyming with Hu’s offscreen elephant, the compulsion of Tarr to follow his characters isn’t the same thing as Hu’s compulsion to embrace his own by moving ahead of them in the process of encircling them. Both ultimately offer blistering sociopolitical critiques of their respective societies in spite of their metaphysical trappings. The task of making blighted, hateful, and mean-tempered fools lovable is an essential part of both Satantango and Elephant, but what makes the latter fools slightly more redeemable is the degree to which they try to connect with one another, even if the results are futile.… Read more »

Guilty by Omission

From the September-October 1991 issue of Film Comment; this was also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies. — J.R.

If one were to undertake a diagnosis of the cultural and historical amnesia that currently afflicts American society in general and the American cinema in particular, the suppression of radical politics as part of our history might be a useful place to start. It is a suppression that comes in many forms, many of them barely conscious.

When a radical youth movie — PUMP UP THE VOLUME — actually gets made and released in the United States today, a repudiation of the 1960s counterculture becomes an obligatory part of its argument, because otherwise many contemporary teenagers would dismiss it out of hand. And when the same film gets reviewed in the United States, even most sympathetic critics find it convenient to overlook the fact that the film is political, for fear of alienating the public. Or when a recent film about Vietnam such as JACOB’S LADDER has the rare courage to attack the Pentagon (unlike, say, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and CASUALTIES OF WAR), one can predict that, given the present climate in America, it will be attacked by some critics for being exploitative and unserious — and praised by others as entertainment — whereas the issues broached by the film won’t be addressed at all.… Read more »