The longevity of the Pacific Film Archive (hereafter PFA) does not confer a license on the average filmgoer to take its existence for granted. While commercial movie screening venues content themselves with merely entertaining their patrons, the PFA goes further with screenings which continually show to interested audiences the wider potentials of film. Those potentials are summed up in the phrase for cinema coined by Italian film theoretician Ricciotto Canudo: the seventh art.
The PFA’s currently ongoing 2021-2022 Winter Schedule offers a chance to see the various ways this venerable institution carries out this mission. It’s especially worthwhile to do so now. This year, the PFA begins celebrating fifty years of year-round film screenings, and the public is invited in on the ground floor.
The various film series that the PFA offers on this screening schedule provide practical demonstrations of the depths of the richness of cinema’s 125-plus years of existence better than the attention-grabbing glitter offered by a popular Hollywood blockbuster du jour. In the latest schedule, an interested viewer can be introduced to new films by local avant-garde spiritual filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky or rediscover some of the best work of the underrated Hollywood actress Barbara Stanwyck.
The first of the new PFA series under discussion is part of the previously mentioned celebration of 50 years of public screenings. It’s a reprise of a series honoring local film icon Francis Ford Coppola and his company American Zoetrope. (The aforementioned Stanwyck series is another such reprise.) Here, viewers have a rare opportunity to see on the big screen a mix of classic films directed by Coppola (“The Conversation” is a must-see for novices) and international films produced under the aegis of American Zoetrope. Falling into the latter category is the incredible “Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters.”
The events of November 25, 1970 provide the film’s frame. On this date, famed Japanese writer Yuko Mishima (accompanied by a quartet of his Shield Society militia men) would take General Mashita of the Camp Ichigaya military base hostage. What the famed writer hoped to accomplish, and how that day’s events play out is what the viewer will discover.
Paul Schrader wrote and directed this stunning biopic. Unlike other films about writers, “Mishima” is structured around the ideas that animated its titular subject’s work and life. Philip Glass’ riveting score plus partial dramatizations of three Mishima works (“The Legend Of The Golden Pavilion,” “Kyoko’s House,” and “Runaway Horses”) help ground the film’s discussions of Mishima’s beliefs.
“Mishima”’s visual storytelling style also supports this emphasis on examining the writer’s beliefs. The flashbacks to points in Mishima’s life before November 25, 1970 are rendered in black and white. But the events of that day and the adaptations of Mishima’s works are rendered in color. Interestingly, a more muted color palette is employed for the present day sequences while the dramatizations benefit from a more spectacular color scheme. It’s as if the November 25 events represent a balance between the writer’s past and his ideals while the adaptations present a more unfiltered version of Mishima’s ideals.
The viewer learns that Mishima was engaged in a lifelong struggle to achieve a “harmony between pen and sword” aka the blending of art and action. Yet how the average person defines such terms as “art” and “action” and Mishima’s definitions of those terms turn out to be two entirely separate items. Winning the Yomiuri and Kishida writing prizes may seem to the average person to be examples of Mishima’s realization of this harmony. Yet those artistic victories are rendered in “Mishima” as an emotionally meaningless near-blur montage. And the “better” examples of this aforementioned harmony shown in the film are not ones that would occur to the average person. His public exhortation to an auditorium of jeering left-wing students to honor the Emperor is his version of artistic political bridge-building. Inflicting deep knife scars and prominent bruises on an aspiring actor’s beautiful skin in “Kyoko’s House” definitely has the “action” part correct.
Viewers should not be surprised. This is the man whose discovery of a drawing of a half-naked and dying St. Sebastian pierced by arrows inspires him to self-pleasure for the first time. Then again, Schrader doesn’t expand on the gay subtext of Mishima’s fascination with bodybuilding or his camaraderie with his all-male Shield Corps. Nor does “Mishima” ever go deeply into the writer’s real-life involvement with right-wing Japanese politics.
Mishima’s one-time self image as a “kamikaze for beauty” never seems borne by reality. Schrader depicts his love for the Emperor and the military spirit as a few steps removed from cosplay. It could be argued the future writer exaggerated the tuberculosis symptom that barred him from actually fighting for Japan during World War II. Even the events of November 25, 1970 ultimately didn’t equate to militarists forcibly imposing their will on others.
Whatever the viewer’s opinions may be on the morality of Mishima’s actions that day, what the writer attempted to do differs significantly from the insurrectionist thuggery of the January 6 Capitol assailants. His actions were never the product of momentarily stoked demagoguery but, as the film’s masterful ending shows, the final culmination of a life-long obsession.
Indulging one’s desire to see more than the commercially popular works of well-known directors has been another strength of the PFA’s public screenings. Average S.F. Bay Area silent film fans will have heard of German silent film director F.W. Murnau from his frequently screened classics “Faust,” “Sunrise,” and his “Dracula” adaptation “Nosferatu.” All these films are being shown as part of the “F.W. Murnau: Voyages Into The Imaginary” series.
But the film reviewed here, “The Burning Earth,” might be called this series’ lost treasure. Made the same year as “Nosferatu,” this film was considered missing for decades until a print was found in 1978 in an Italian psychiatric asylum.
“The Burning Earth” can’t be called a perfect film. Its redemptive ending feels way too facile. The “don’t think of rising out of the caste you were born into” message may grate to audience members chafing at this current age of economic inequality. More sexual equality-minded viewers may look askance at the film’s treatment of women. But what remains timeless is its portrait of callous ambition.
Ambitious peasant Johannes Rog has returned to the family farm in Silesia because his father is on his deathbed. However, having seen the possibilities of the city, he has no intention of honoring his father’s dying wish that he should wed peasant girl Maria and live the life of a peasant farmer. Thanks to Johannes’ persuasion, Count von Rudenberg takes the young man on as his secretary.
Among the Count’s holdings is the piece of barren land referred to (and feared by) the locals as the Devil’s Field. An ancestor of the Count died in a mysterious explosion while searching for the great treasure supposedly buried somewhere on the land. That treasure search has been continued by the present Count, who finally learns the land’s secret: a large undeveloped oil field. Johannes accidentally discovers this secret and plots to gain control of the treasure to fulfill his dreams of accumulating wealth and power.
Murnau displays subtle dramatic touches throughout the film. Johannes keeps his suit and tie on during the peasants’ communal meal, a foreshadowing of his rejection of his origins. Count von Rudenberg’s obsession with his treasure hunt and Gerda’s arrogant dislike of her stepmother Helga leaves the older woman emotionally isolated and prey to Johannes’ attention. The Devil’s Field plays a role in both keeping Johannes from reaching his father’s deathbed in time and pushing the young man away from heeding his late father’s wishes.
Vladimir Gadjarov avoids making Johannes’ villainy an exercise in over-the-top mustache twirling. Ambition and taking advantage of opportunities are, in the right circumstances, admirable traits for improving one’s life. But Johannes’ exploitation of people to realize his ambition is what pushes him into sociopath territory. The film’s redemptive ending may be intended to show the viewer the ambitious man is ultimately not a sociopath. Yet the haunted look Johannes displays late in the film does a more persuasive job of making this point.
Murnau’s visual storytelling in recounting the legend of the Devil’s Field provides enough atmosphere to believe in the locals’ opinion of the area as cursed land. The director may keep things ambiguous enough to allow that opinion to be apparently dismissed by rational discovery. Yet events wind up showing how the land in question emotionally lives up to its nickname.
Still, one noticeable plot hole concerns Count von Rudenberg’s knowledge of the Devil’s Field’s secret. Was Helga ever going to be let in on the secret? Or was she considered too untrustworthy because of her sex?
PFA’s screening programs over the years regularly provide vivid reminders that the world of filmmaking extends far outside the poles of the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China. One way they do so is by presenting film series on filmmakers from countries outside those already mentioned.
In the Winter 2022 catalog, there’s a series devoted to the films of noted Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety. A self-taught filmmaker, his filmmaking style may step far away from the sobriety of social realism. Yet in its subtly wild visual imaginings, Mambety makes some fairly pungent points about life in post-Colonialist Africa.
“Hyenas,” the film under review, was originally intended by Mambety to be the second part of a feature film trilogy about human greed. But that dream never came to fruition thanks to Mambety’s early death at 53 during the making of “The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun.” Yet what the viewer has in “Hyenas” is an entertaining and darkly blistering comic illustration of how a man’s life can be less important than obtaining a pair of fashionable bright yellow shoes, chocolate bars, or even a fan.
The seed for what would become Mambety’s second feature-length film began with a real-life prostitute named Linguere Ramatou who appeared for a few years in Dakar before disappearing. It took the Fredrich Durrenmatt satirical play “The Visit” to inspire the director to craft a unique end to Ramatou’s story.
Mambety’s film has Ramatou returning to her Senegalese home town of Colobane (coincidentally the director’s birthplace) after a 30-year absence. The town’s current economic state can best be described as the train rider version of a flyover town but worse. Its factories have long been shuttered. The town is so poor, City Hall has had its furniture repossessed. Many inhabitants’ clothing are literally nothing more than used rice sacks with holes cut into them to insert the wearer’s arms, legs, and head.
Ramatou has returned to Colobane possessing enough wealth to rival the World Bank. The desperately poor townspeople hope she still loves her hometown enough to gift Colobane the money it needs for its economic revival.
The good news is Ramatou does intend to provide such a financial gift to Colobane. The bad news is the small price that she wants to exact for bestowing that gift. Ramatou’s earlier departure with her infant daughter from Colobane had been in disgrace thanks to her former lover’s false public accusation of infidelity. The child eventually died, and Ramatou had to turn to prostitution to survive and ultimately become wealthy. Her return may be the fulfillment of a personal promise, but that promise is one of revenge. To economically revive Colobane, Dramaan Drameh, the former lover whose lies disgraced Ramatou, must die.
Despite continual claims of being poor but proudly honest people, the inhabitants of Colobane are shown in “Hyenas” to communally be less than honest and ultimately willing to do anything to not remain poor. Before Ramatou’s return, Colobane customers’ promises to “eventually” pay for the goods they’ve been credited are hinted to be implicitly worthless. After the returnee’s offer is made, the town’s inhabitants don’t pledge the prospective windfall to settle their existing debts. Instead, they happily go further into debt to obtain goods they’d previously only dreamed of.
Dramaan doubly becomes the butt of the Colobane residents’ greed. He’s initially clueless about why his customers suddenly want to buy goods they can’t normally afford. Later, he doesn’t realize that if he dies, his customers won’t necessarily feel obligated to pay his wife back. His belief in his so-called popularity prevents him from realizing it amounts in practical terms to nothing.
Even with his belated understanding that the villagers of Colobane have practically accepted Ramatou’s offer, that realization does not push the marked man to try atoning for wronging his ex-lover. On the other hand, none of the Colobane residents are willing to step forward and kill Dramaan. That emotional stalemate is embodied in a scene where the marked man’s attempt at flight gets interrupted by the torch wielding crowd of men who surround him. Dramaan lacks the courage to try making a break for freedom. Yet the men surrounding Dramaan don’t seem ready to use physical violence against the prospective fugitive.
The material benefits Ramatou brings to Colobane feel almost surrealistic. A full-on carnival with fireworks and amusement rides provide a stark visual contrast to this town of dust storms and unpaved roads. Refrigerators and air conditioners are handed out as if they were bunches of candied apples. The willingness of Colobane’s residents to accept these appliances doesn’t seem to take into consideration whether the town possesses sufficient electricity generation infrastructure to operate these electricity-dependent devices.
Verbally oriented viewers will need to pay particular attention to Mambety’s frequent use of symbolism. The elephants seen at the beginning and end of “Hyenas” capture the present and future trajectories of the lives of the people of Colobane. Actual hyenas make only minimal appearances in the film because the people of Colobane figuratively transform into them by embracing Western materialism. What the mostly silent Japanese woman who accompanies Ramatou’s party embodies could be the power her mistress now possesses.
Does “Hyenas” ultimately offer a very cynical take on human nature? It could equally be argued that Mambety has merely provided a more honest assessment of the subject freed of romantic illusion.
The greatest benefit of the PFA’s public screenings, though, is encountering a film that engages viewers with its intellectual and/or emotional challenges. The documentary and nonfiction films that make up the “Documentary Voices” film series present unconventional challenges to viewer assumptions and ideas on multiple levels.
Series opener “Prism” can be described as a collaborative essay by female directors Rosine Mbakam, Eleonore Yameogo, and An Van Dienderen. The directors hail from, respectively, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Belgium. The women, two Black and one white, discuss on Zoom the challenge of making a film that depicts Black skin accurately despite the race problem inherent in filmmaking technology.
The basis for this assertion of racist filming technology comes from the China Girl image. Basically, a film camera’s color images are normally calibrated by comparing color bars to the reference point of a white woman’s skin. Is such a standard proof of the technology’s racism? Or is it simply a technical problem that non-white directors need to work around?
The title metaphorically captures how the three directors will answer these questions. Much as white light refracted through a prism breaks down into component colors, this trio of female auteurs focus on three different aspects of these questions. Van Dienderen takes a philosophical approach to her answers. Mbakam focuses on the questions’ political implications. Yameogo goes for the pragmatic answer.
This essay film doesn’t assert the correctness of one particular director’s answer over another’s. Rather, “Prism” challenges the viewer to synthesize these individual viewpoints into a cohesive whole.
The Belgian director frames her answer metaphorically via an all white stage whose inhabitants are an interracial couple engaged in conversation. This supposedly neutral setting is one where the white male apparently dominates the space by being closer in color to the furnishings surrounding them. By comparison, the Black woman appears to be an aberration.
The Cameroonian director connects these questions to neutralizing the mental poisons of the colonialist legacy. Such poisons make “natural” the practice of the North telling stories about the South or the objectification of the so-called “Hottentot Venus.” Citing everything from period home movies taken by a colonialist employer to a non-exploitative picture of a voodoo practitioner, Mbakam discusses how to escape being forced into a space imposed on people like her. For the cultural stakes of not escaping such an imposed space is to lack the power to tell one’s own history or even exercise one’s individual imagination.
The director from Burkina Faso uses actress Tella Kpomakou as a guide to introduce viewers to Black film professionals who’ve addressed various problems in properly catching Black skin on film. As the interviewees cumulatively make clear, the work has already been done to solve these technical issues. For example, a makeup artist uses three different types of makeup to bring out Black skin textures. Meanwhile, a cinematographer discusses how she found properly lighting Black skin has different demands compared to lighting white skin. Yameogo ultimately suggests the slowness of white film industry professionals to adapt these solutions feels connected to white underestimation of the speed with which the Black South would want to use the power of film themselves.
“Prism” is the type of idea-filled film that will provide fodder for long meaningful post-film discussions on filming different races. May it ultimately spark new and better artistic depictions of non-whites.
So take a look at these films or others in the aforementioned series. “Touki Bouki,” “499,” “Rumble Fish,” and “City Girl” await your discovery at the PFA.
(The “Francis Ford Coppola And American Zoetrope” film series runs through February 27, 2022. “Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters” screens on February 11, 2022.
The “F.W. Murnau: Voyages Into The Imaginary” film series runs through February 27, 2022.
The “Djibril Diop Mambety” film series runs through February 20, 2022. “Hyenas” screens on February 17, 2022.
The “Documentary Voices” film series runs through February 23, 2022. “Prism” kicks the series off with its screening on January 26, 2022.
All screenings take place at the Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley). For advance tickets and further information about the films, go to https://bampfa.org.)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment