Election review

Given the result of the election this week, I’ve been feeling sporadically nauseous, hopeless, and angry. (I concur with Filmjourney discussion participant Michael Kerpan, who writes, “not even an Ozu film could possibly cheer me up.” But in a twist of irony, the Ozu retrospective in Los Angeles began this week.) The idea of four more years of neoconservative extremism both here and abroad fills me with despair, yet the most aggravating aspect of the election has undoubtedly been the mainstream media response to it–a desperate effort to squelch the last four years of dissent and deny that the country is deeply fractured. Headlines proclaim that Bush absurdly “seeks broad support,” that Kerry’s final flip-flop called for “a time of healing” (even though nothing has changed), and that–stop the presses–Laura Bush is getting a puppy for Christmas! The retail industry is already filling my inbox with holiday spam. It’s as if the debates (as stunted and tepid as they were) were nothing more than a sporting match, requiring no greater response than a handshake rather than widespread cultural renewal. Then it occurred to me–for most of the media, the presidential debates were nothing more than a sporting match, a ready-made drama that wrote its own headlines and sold its own newspaper and cable subscriptions. The election is over now, it won’t generate any more cash, let’s just kiss and make-up.

But I’ve got news for the news. The majority of America–the millions of Kerry voters, third party supporters, disillusioned non-voters, and conservatives who are deeply opposed to Bush and his destructive unilateralism–are not going away. Our international coalition of websites, blogs, independent publishing, and political organization will continue to forge new relationships, share the human experience, gather together, exchange new ideas, and rally others to our cause. None of the major demonstrations against Bush’s policies of the last four years were organized by the Democratic Party; this election was not a defeat for us, merely a renewed battle against our foe.

A few years back, a friend of mine was sitting in a university classroom and struck up a conversation with a student from China. “What type of movies do you like?” the student eventually asked, and when my friend replied that she typically watched international films, the student glowingly responded, “Oh, I could tell. Whenever someone tells me they like foreign films, I know they are a special person.” Now don’t be fooled into thinking she was expressing artistic elitism, just the opposite; her comments were a genuine affirmation of the bond, mutual respect, and shared language that’s crucial for international communication. Serious political problems and injustices exist, but expressions of human solidarity through the universal language of art are a pretty good place to begin talking about them.

I’m taking stock of my energies the last few years. The desire to break free from the corporate media’s iron fist of spin doctors and Hollywood reports, box office rankings and isolationist venues was certainly a primary impetus behind Masters of Cinema, a website I co-founded in 2003 with an American immigrant from Poland, a Canadian immigrant from Norway, and a friend living in the UK. Our vision was to step beyond the corporate-enforced region restrictions on DVDs that keep, say, Americans from purchasing DVDs from Europe and playing them at home. And this is simply because a lot of great films–even American ones–are released on DVD in Europe and not in America. (And visa versa.) We act as crusading cinephiles, exposing more people to the aesthetic diversity and human unity of global cinema that is also a political stance, challenging the power structure that hopes to define what people can watch and where they can do it. This past year, we began distributing our own line of DVDs.

I also began Filmjourney in 2003, part critical blog, part open discussion, and dedicated it to AndrÈ Bazin (1918-1958). It has often been said that all critics today are children of the French New Wave, and if that is so, we’re certainly children of their mentor. Bazin began writing film criticism during WWII and the Occupation of France, forming cinÈ clubs and pedaling his bicycle around Paris to obtain bootleg films for his screenings week after week. After the war, he became a leading figure in the cultural reconstruction of France, developing his club discussions into a traveling series of educational classes on the cinema, which he would deliver despite his stutter to packed rooms in attics and factories and convents–wherever people wanted to learn about movies and develop a critical understanding.

According to his biographer, Dudley Andrew, Bazin sometimes felt guilty for staying in Paris during the Resistance. And the growth of post-structural political film criticism in the ’70s (after Bazin’s death) was not kind to his “humanist” or even “apolitical” approach. But anyone familiar with Bazin’s precarious health and sensitive disposition will be hard pressed to fault his lack of overt activism, and anyone familiar with his intelligence, commitment, and tireless energy cannot deny his significant cultural impact. His friend and politically-engaged filmmaker Chris Marker has said, “He spent long hours in the factories these radicals write about from comfortable desks. Bazin was out there using his life to bring about a renewed culture. I wish he had been with us in May of ’68.”

Bazin’s cultural engagement was more moral, progressive, spiritual–even Christian–than the conservative half of the American electorate could possibly dream. “His goodness was almost legendary,” FranÁois Truffaut has written. “We sometimes made fun of it to hide the emotion it inspired.” Yet Bazin’s goodness also expressed itself in the way he built communities of cinephiles, promoted the work of humanist filmmakers, championed the value of international cinema–particularly the socially-conscious works of Italian neorealism–educated viewers throughout Europe and argued for aesthetics that inspired them to look rather than to receive, and mentored a generation of filmmakers who revolutionized the medium and are still beloved throughout the world.

Bazin’s passion for global community and grassroots organization, social justice and artistic engagement will be a model we can all benefit from for years to come. After five years of campaigning, Bush may have finally been elected by 3% of American voters, but almost never before has a sitting wartime president and his aggressively isolationist policies come so close to being expelled. It didn’t happen this week, but for those of us committed to true global community, it probably doesn’t matter at all.

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