Did You See This?

“The Truest Test of a Movie”

On Film / The Daily — Mar 6, 2020
John Magaro in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019)

Just days after Mohammad Rasoulof won the Berlinale’s top prize, the Golden Bear, for There Is No Evil, Iranian authorities summoned the director to begin serving the one-year prison sentence issued last summer for what they deemed to be “propaganda against the state.” Variety’s Nick Vivarelli reports that, rather than turn himself in, Rasoulof plans to file an appeal. According to the Associated Press, there is hope that the appeal may be granted, at least for the time being. Iran has been sending tens of thousands of prisoners home temporarily in an effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading through its penal system.

Before we put this year’s Berlinale to bed, one more related item opens this week’s round of highlights:

  • The festival’s Forum section has posted a lovely letter from Jia Zhangke in which he looks back on the making of his first feature, Xiao Wu (Pickpocket, 1998). His story reads like a series of minor miracles. A manager at Beijing Kodak personally paid for an extra five rolls of 16 mm film that allowed Jia to shoot fifty-five more minutes of footage than he’d planned. And when Jia mailed off a VHS copy to the Forum, the director at the time, Ulrich Gregor, slipped it into a player at the end of a long day just to check out the first sequence or two. “108 minutes later, he decided to invite the film,” writes Jia. The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna have worked with Jia to complete the restoration that was screened in Berlin last week, and Josh Martin passes along a statement from Martin Scorsese: “I think the truest test of a movie is if it can touch you the minute you watch it and give you the urge to go make another movie, even if you know nothing about where it came from, the people who made it, or the background of its creation. That’s exactly the reaction I had when I saw Xiao Wu.
  • For critic and programmer Andy Rector, Tag Gallagher is “one of the greatest film critics of the past fifty years and the most original and free-thinking of them all.” Gallagher, who has written over the years for Cahiers du cinéma, Trafic, Senses of Cinema, and countless other publications, has launched a new site gathering articles on John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Jean Renoir as well as video essays on the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Max Ophuls, Josef von Sternberg, and so on and on. Gallagher has also made his recently revised biography The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, which Adrian Martin has called a “magnificent and extraordinary book,” free to download.
  • Speaking of Cahiers, and as an update on the item that opened last week’s roundup, in the editorial that opens this month’s issue, Stéphane Delorme explains why he and his staff will be leaving after completing work on the April issue. You may have to run it through Google Translate, but Delorme comes through loud and clear. The magazine’s new owners, “a conglomerate of producers and businessmen,” present his team with a conflict of interest. Besides, they don’t want Cahiers to become a “chic” promotional outlet for French cinema. “Such a decision is heartbreaking for us,” writes Delorme, “and unprecedented in the history of the journal.” Meantime, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody has written up an excellent primer on the history of one of film culture’s most vital publications and argues that, under Delorme, it is “still propelled by the force of its original urgency and passion. With the turning of the page at the magazine, it’s more than a tradition that’s in danger; what’s threatened is an entire emotional world, a dynamic and ardent experience of movies.”
  • For the New York Review of Books, Yasmina Price revisits Kathleen Collins’s second and last feature, Losing Ground (1982), “a particularly incandescent example of filmmaking as a process of defiant self-creation.” The film “elides politics in the formal sense. Yet the themes of authorial, intellectual, and expressive legitimacy that pulse through Losing Ground form their own political statement—reinforced by her decision to focus the film’s story on the daily routine of a middle-class black couple . . . Losing Ground breaks not only with stereotypical depictions of mainstream movies but also the over-corrective reaction to them, what Collins called the demand for ‘mythical black people.’”
  • First Cow opens today and, writing for the Ringer, Adam Nayman argues that Kelly Reichardt is “the most consistently politically conscious and sociologically astute American filmmaker of the post-’90s generation—a major artist in a minor key.” There’s a retrospective on at the Harvard Film Archive, we’ve just posted her Criterion top ten, and Clinton Krute’s piece on First Cow is the cover story in the new Film Comment. The Atlantic’s David Sims has set up a chat with Reichardt and Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, who’s a fan. In First Cow, he notes, “you’re seeing the birth of U.S. capitalism.” At the Talkhouse, Reichardt has a good long talk with Olivier Assayas about their respective processes, from the writing stage all the way through editing. To come full circle, among the notes I kept during the Berlinale this year is a ranked list of the twenty-plus features I saw, and early on, First Cow landed at the top of it. It never budged. Go see it.
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