The Last Democracy

"If more people met in the lobby, maybe life would be better."

For a "State of Cinema" address delivered to a well-heeled crowd at the San Francisco International Film Festival, you might expect to hear about overall trends and innovations, where to look for the next hot national cinema, industry developments or new talent. Instead, B. Ruby Rich, who spoke before a screening of Suite Habana, came prepared to talk about film festivals as microcosms of true democracy.

In her words: "I have begun to think of film festivals as the last refuge of democracy in this increasingly controlled and manacled world of ours, the last place where a true participatory discourse can prevail and where persons of deep-seated convictions and open minds can come to exchange views, surrender control, and be changed forever by what goes by on screen."

Conspicuously absent from the screening of Suite Habana, a new Cuban documentary, was its director, Fernando Perez (Life Is To Whistle). Thanks to Homeland Security policy, Perez was not allowed to enter the country to attend the US premiere of his own film. In this light, not to draw attention to the tatters of American democracy would be a whitewash.

B. Ruby Rich met with GreenCine afterwards to talk about queer cinema (it's over), Three Kings (re-release it!), the larger purpose of film festivals (to confront the other), and the American movie business (capitalism on steroids).

You say a slew of Hollywood movies released this fall have been about revenge, specifically, 21 Grams, Mystic River and Kill Bill. This troubled you; you said that they represented a kind of cinematic fundamentalism. Can you explain?

I was riffing off a piece I had written for the London paper The Guardian on films of revenge. At that time, I had put Kill Bill into that [category] and it really troubled me that all three of these films were setting people up for vigilante justice, or actually, vigilante injustice in which innocent people are going to die or the wrong person is going to get killed. It's not necessarily that all these films had this in mind, but I think that the success of the films has to do with the mood in this country at the moment. The reason they resonated with people was for that reason.

[This goes] all the way back to the time right after 9/11, when the US made such a fatal wrong turn from having the world's sympathy to earning the world's enmity with Afghanistan. In that fall and winter, when that was happening and we were going so the wrong way, In the Bedroom came out. That was an indie film seemingly about something different, but it was also about vigilante justice. In this case you could say that grief was short-circuited by anger and the desire for revenge. The way it broke out of the usual tiny market position and broke into such wide release had everything to do with the way this country is directed down this road of revenge against its better interests. And literally, like the film, is selling out its soul.

Now I think something even worse is happening with this season's releases. Not just this winter, but the recent success of Lord of the Rings, Master and Commander, Seabiscuit. [Note: Rich identifies these films as part of a whole new generation of lad movies: "You don't see women in any of these except to keep the home fires burning."] I don't think it's just nostalgia because we don't necessarily remember those events. But it's going back to the past and into mythology and fantasy in order to feed this idea of triumphalism that is not playing out that way in our real lives. It's terribly dangerous and it makes me almost feel almost physically ill to think about these films.

You say that every town should have a festival and that they should become as commonplace as the newspaper. What would that look like?

Film festivals are almost as numerous as newspapers, at least in the US. Still, I know that's a little bit fanciful to say. In fact, when you look at the demographics of a major film festival, who has the money to go, who feels welcome? But then there are all these film festivals about specific communities - Latino, Jewish, Asian American. And they are about constituting community. Even at this one [SFIFF], there might not be class diversity there, but there is an ethnic and racial diversity, because people are coming to see the films from their parts of the world and meeting each other, at least in the lobby. If more people met in the lobby, maybe life would be better.

What would the world look like? Well, back when the US was a functional democracy, there were town meetings. There were communities. There would be screenings and dialogue, and then there could be arguments in a public place like there were at my speech. I think that's great when there is open discussion.

Wait a minute. Democracy is not functionally dead on the floor. People still caucus. What about caucusing?

No, it's not completely dead. It's just in some intensive care unit somewhere and I don't trust the nurse. [laughs] I think it's a model. The main thing to me is, there has to be a way to move Americans past headline caricatures and mainstream media stereotypes. One of the few places where that happens is in films from other parts of the world. Films in other genres, films being made by people who aren't Americans themselves and can understand that the world is not some kind of reflecting mirror stashed on the United States' vanity table. That it's really, fundamentally different with different customs and that they are not crazy or evil.

I spent the 1980s as a bureaucrat. I ran the film and video program for the NYC Council of the Arts, giving out taxpayers' money for nonprofit events of all kinds. And funding things from Film Forum, to the NY Film Festival, to production. I funded She's Gotta Have It. I funded Elia Suleiman's first movie, which was a short.

And I used to fund this exhibition in upstate New York in a small-town public library. This woman who ran it had a little 16mm and a small auditorium. Early in life she had been in the Peace Corps and she'd never lived in such a small town. She said to me, "These people don't see the world in this small town. They don't travel. I have seen the world; they won't do that, and I have to bring it to them." And she showed international foreign films with subtitles and created an audience and gave people an idea about the world and about film.

It always stuck with me as an example of what people don't usually acknowledge, because it's considered a low-level way to think about film. People usually talk about genres and cinematic craft and trends. But there's a part of film that is really important for just opening up people's minds in the way that travel does. Especially if you consider those statistics we've been seeing of how few people have passports. [Fewer than 40 percent of Americans.]

I just wrote this essay for an anthology called Subtitles [edited by the filmmaker Atom Egoyan and the Canadian scholar Ian Balfour] on the subject of the foreignness of foreign films, and one of the things that struck me was this American resistance to subtitles. I interviewed all these distributors and asked them, "Don't you think it's about American xenophobia? And that's why we have this foreign policy, because Americans don't want to acknowledge other languages?"

"Oh no," they'd say. "People just want a good time. They want to relax when they go out to the movies. They don't want to work to read subtitles."

"So they prefer to see films that are dubbed?"

"Oh no, Americans hate dubbing. They will never accept that. They're smarter than that."

Ok, so they prefer to go see films in one of the many foreign languages they know? If only - we know this is a monolingual country. So what does this mean? They won't read subtitles. They won't speak or read foreign languages. They won't accept dubbing. They don't want any reminder that the universe everywhere in the world is not an English-speaking universe. They don't want to be faced with limitation of their selfhood. They don't want to ever encounter the other.

You mentioned that in this political climate, Three Kings should be re-released. Why?

Given that The Battle of Algiers could be re-released and that [Jonathan Demme's remake of] The Manchurian Candidate is now in progress - at this very moment being edited - why isn't anyone releasing Three Kings?

You describe cinema being used as a Trojan horse. We do see a lot of this. In the McCarthy era, for instance, a lot of subject matter got past the Hays Code in disguise.

Yes, you even have Douglas Sirk couching social critique and social commentary in these very loveable genres.

You say no film festival is truly non-political. Cannes, Venice, Berlin, all occurred in hugely political climates. Did you have expectations that film festivals this year will have an overt political context?

The huge controversy on the jury of the Sydney Film Festival recently was over the Australian government censoring a movie called Ken Park. It's not very good. If The Graduate had been soft core from this era, it might have looked like this. But you can't pick your censorship battles. It's often for films that aren't very good. It's a drag that that's what you have to defend these on. The festival wasn't allowed to show it. The critics defended it. They protested the banning. That was the controversy.

I think that the place of politics has been so vacated in the public discourse that this instead tends to settle around issues of sexuality, lifestyle, same sex marriage, pornography, decency, things like this -- instead of on political issues that should be talked about. We're losing the whole frame of mind to even talk about it.

Still, I thought it was great that the critics were prepared to go to the barricades for the movie and didn't feel they were violating their trust as critics. In the US, though, a lot of critics feel they're just supposed to be reviewing movies. I once had a critic say that to me: "You're not really a critic. I'm a critic. I just want to talk about whether a film was good or not and whether people should see it or not. You want to take on these issues and champion things." That's seeped into people's ideas.

I think there's a lockstep mentality that's triumphed in terms of the American discourse. I was involved in a murder trial in the early Reagan days because a good friend of mine was murdered by her husband, an artist who claimed she committed suicide. It divided the New York art world at that time, especially in terms of the feminist art world and the Latino art world - she was Cuban - and the mainstream art world.

I was arguing with everybody about it at the time. I was writing about it a lot. People told me, "You can't say that he's guilty. You have to assume he's innocent until proven guilty." I said, "No, that's the law. In court they do that. In public opinion that's not true at all." It's a complete misapplication of a principle. But that idea has reinforced people's timidity and put an ideology onto that timidity. Now there's a justification for not speaking out. In fact, you are not justified in speaking out. It's a disempowerment.

I was impressed at how France handled questions regarding The Passion of Christ. Marin Karmitz, a French producer who also owns an art house theater chain called MK2, made a statement that he will not show The Passion of Christ in any of his movie theaters because, as far as he was concerned, it was propaganda for fascism and he had spent his entire life fighting fascism. Now you can say this in France, where a war was fought over fascism, which meant Nazism. You can't say it here, where you're suddenly being unbalanced or unfair or not neutral. There's no vocabulary for political debate unless it's an electoral debate, which increasingly means a debate from the center to the right.

You're commenting lately quite a bit about Uma Thurman's role in Kill Bill. Why is this interesting to you?

I think the film is really interesting for many reasons. Thurman is offered up not so much as a messianic figure, because she doesn't preach. She kills everyone she encounters. She's more in the tradition of the crusaders. One part Joan of Arc, one part I Spit on Your Grave.

I'm ambivalent about Tarantino. Some of his films I'm put off by, and some of them I'm amused by. He lives, breathes, dreams, jerks off to movies. But they're not the ones I care about necessarily. It's really a boy, boy, boy, boy universe. But in this film, Tarantino's playing with something more interesting. Whether it's his intention or what I'm bringing to it, I'm not sure. But in a strange sort of way, I think he's made a very old-fashioned movie. It's a movie about the body. At a moment when people are making movies that aren't about humans, or use special effects, or are completely dependent on hobbits, elves, little nemos, monsters (Inc.), there's something oddly touching about a movie about the mortality of the human body.

What's queer cinema up to now?

It's over. What's it up to now? It's a niche market. It's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It's the worst nightmare of every gay activist from the 1970s and 1980s who said, "If you don't watch out, you're going to end up with 'lifestyle, lifestyle lifestyle'." I don't think I'm getting my politics from The L Word. There's nothing formality-breaking going on there.

That is what was so striking about the 1990s when I came up with this term "Queer Cinema." It was a meeting of political engagement and aesthetic invention that led to an exciting movement. We had movies like Go Fish, Poison, Swoon, Edward II, Young Soul Rebels. I don't think it was only the films of the time. It was also the constituting of a queer community through the film festivals they started.

That's where I see the utopian film festival model. They took films without any access to the marketplace and created a marketplace for them. They also, in a way that few festivals did or do, didn't set up hierarchies between what was made in 35mm and what was shot in Hi-8. They took the class out of the production medium, and they took the class out of length. They weren't size queens. You didn't have to be a feature. In fact, they did the most inventive programming of shorts that would pack houses. They did the most inventive curating of the past. People were constantly rummaging through archives and coming up with discoveries. Year after year after year, it was an exciting place to be.

Here in San Francisco, above all. The 1990s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at the Castro every June. I call it the Gay Cannes. These films would premier; people would line up around the block, cruise the line and meet their next lover. It was a scene. To stand on the stage of the Castro for a sold-out show of 1500 people, screaming over, say, this little Canadian documentary called Forbidden Love about the history of lesbians in Canada. It was an experience they couldn't have had anywhere else and at any other time. It became a movement that traveled around the world. This film I saw this year that I liked a lot, A Thousand Clouds of Peace, came out of Mexico. People began making work in video because, suddenly, there were 80 festivals they could show it at. Film festivals and democracy opened up a discourse.

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