Recent notes

A few notes…

ïI’ve come down with a cold this week, so permit me a moment of persnickety cinephile bitchiness. Most of the folks I know consider Jonathan Rosenbaum’s critique of the first Top 100 Movies list by the American Film Institute to be one of the most inspiring critical essays of the last few years, so it’s sad to say that with each successive list the AFI releases, their excuses for promoting pretty much the same Hollywood videos over and over again become even more suspect and absurd. Their latest in a long line of TV-special mediocrities posing as cinema appreciation? AFI’s 100 Years…100 Quotes “most memorable phrases from film.” It’s amazing to think that America’s most “preeminent national organization dedicated to advancing and preserving film” (their own description; forgetting, say, the Library of Congress) has nothing better to do with its funds or time. When 50% of all American films produced before 1950 have vanished and 90% of classic film prints in the US are currently in very poor condition, the inanity of the AFI’s faux-appreciation advertising schemes becomes all the more gruesome.

ïBy way of contrast, I have been attending the Yasujiro Ozu retrospective at the famed UCLA Film and Television Archive, a genuinely progressive institution that preserves and restores scores of films each year and holds a festival each fall of the movies most recently saved from oblivion. I’ll never forget the glowing print of Charles Laughton’s masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955) they screened a few years ago, complete with surviving alternate takes.

The Ozu retrospective (initially organized for the 2003 NYFF) is progressing wonderfully. To see early Ozu works like his gangster films Walk Cheerfully (1930) and Dragnet Girl (1933), and appreciate his Michael Curtiz-like use of proto-noir character types and low-key chiaroscuro lighting is a revelation. But even these films are sorely in need of whatever restoration can be made–our screening of the serene and beautiful Early Summer (1951) last night was introduced by a UCLA curator who apologized beforehand for the film’s significant scratches and audio dropouts, noting that it was nevertheless the best quality print in the world.

ïIn other news, I co-organize a screening club here at Caltech (where I work), and on Tuesday we watched Raoul Peck’s Lumumba (2000), a fairly straightforward but effective account of Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium in 1960 and the activism of Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister. But like many third world nations, the country’s politics were heavily monitored and manipulated by covert CIA operations. (Covert to US voters, anyway.) In light of this week’s public CIA makeover and the comments by its director, Porter Goss (“We do not make policy, though we do inform those who make it; we avoid political involvement, especially political partisanship”), the film’s example of an opposite CIA policy in the world seems all the more damning.

Specifically, one scene in the film depicts a meeting between Lumumba’s opposition and CIA operatives in which the American ambassador Claire Timberlake and his secretary, Frank Carlucci, are portrayed, speaking ominously about remaining aloof from international policies in a manner that makes their opposite intentions clear. But Carlucci, who later became the CIA Deputy Chief under Carter, Secretary of Defense under Reagan, personal friends with Donald Rumsfeld, and current chairman of the powerful Carlyle group, threatened to sue HBO and Zeitgeist Films if they released the scene intact. They subsequently did not. Knowing of this controversy, I expected the scene to be cut from the DVD, but instead, Carlucci’s name is simply, unceremoniously, bleeped out. “Mr. —-beep—-, what is your opinion on the matter?” they ask. Such an obvious moment of political censorship is so overt, it would be downright funny if it wasn’t so serious.