Cannes '96, Expert Witness #3: Noah Tsika
Still, to say Noah "specializes" in any one thing feels like a misnomer, given his eclectic pursuits as a media scholar and his seeming awareness of every movie ever made. You might know his work from the short study of Gods and Monsters he published in Arsenal's Queer Film Classic series a while back, or from his contributions to anthologies about African sci-fi and genre fiction, or Brokeback Mountain, or 21st-century film criticism. I am desperately anticipating his next book, Pink 2.0, due out this October, about digital queer cinema. (Feel free to pre-order it!) Soon, we will feature together in a collection of feminist essays on each of Todd Haynes's movies, where Noah's attentions will focus on my beloved Dottie Gets Spanked. Noah's Twitter feed is the best place to enjoy his diverse and funny reflections on new releases as they bow, on the wide-ranging classes he teaches, on the latest exploits and milestones of African films and their headliners, and on important political causes, including those that directly affect his institution and its students.
I was most eager to engage Noah about Flora Gomes's Tree of Blood, a joint production of Portugal and Guinea-Bissau and a rare West African feature to grace the Main Competition at Cannes. Gomes's name and work were new to me through this #Cannes96 exercise (and perfect evidence of why I undertake these projects) but Noah, as ever, has been tracking this filmmaker for a while. Some of our exchange centered around this title, but in perfect tribute to my discussion partner, the talk spreads to race and racism on film, environmentalism, Robert Altman, misogynist archetypes, festival politics, places to see all-but-buried African features, and other topics far and wide...
ND: By the first week of Cannes '96, the three big stories were already Secrets & Lies, Fargo, and Breaking the Waves, and they maintained that status for the remainder. So first, I'm polling everybody: had you been on the jury, which of those three would you have championed for the Palme? What do you most love or admire about it?
NT: In 1996, Secrets & Lies was the one for me—and I suspect that it still is. I like to think of it as a film about passing, and I've taught it alongside such works as Basil Dearden's Sapphire (1959) and Imitation of Life (both the 1934 and the 1959 versions, directed by John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk, respectively). Secrets & Lies upends the conventions of this particular subgenre, if you can even call it that. The film is about poor white people who struggle with their proximity to Blackness—who, in various ways, have attempted to pass as isolated, even hermetic, in their whiteness—and an affluent, tremendously accomplished Black woman who is utterly unperturbed by her own "difference." The performances are gorgeous. Brenda Blethyn is, despite what detractors might say, thoroughly in character with her histrionics. It's a dazzling turn: the Cannes jury got Best Actress exactly right, and Blethyn should have won the Oscar, too. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is wonderful, as is Timothy Spall, but young Claire Rushbrook is simply astonishing. Her displays of anger and resentment always terrify me. Secrets & Lies has a truly great ending, with Blethyn's character offering a lovely little benediction. The film is hardly "cinematic" in the conventional sense, but I love its dingy, downright televisual style. It looks like a home movie, which is apt, I think.
Are you a fan of the other two in that group, or was this a pretty easy decision for you?
My parents took me to see Fargo the day it opened in Maine. I remember thrilling to its opening text; the words "true story" and "respect for the dead" so impressed me that I immediately stiffened my back, steeling myself for a Very Important Film. The austerity of the images, starting with a car approaching the screen amid all that snow, along with the urgency of Carter Burwell's remarkable score, made me believe that this would be a life-changing experience. (My mother must have had a similar response; she leaned toward me and whispered, "You'll probably want to write about this one.") But something about the film—its comic tone, its stylized acting, its repetitive linguistic play—disappointed me tremendously. It was only later, watching the film on television, that I began to enjoy it. The constant parodies must have made it less strange. In just a few months, Marge had become a pervasive object of impersonation, and I suddenly felt profoundly comfortable with Fargo. It had been transformed, for me, into a kind of collectively produced folk art.
Viewed today, it seems like a wild Preston Sturges comedy retrofitted with all the violence that Hollywood's Production Code forbade. But I'm not sure that I can love it. The Coens, with their misanthropy (and what strikes me as contempt for the audience), have so frequently and so sorely disappointed me since, in ways that Fargo seems to presage. And it's impossible to ignore the film's racist deployment of an Asian-American character—the heavily stereotyped Mike Yanagita. By now, though, Fargo is so thoroughly entrenched in popular culture, its settings and characters nearly as iconic as those of Casablanca (not a great film, either, and one that gave rise to its own television reboot), that it's difficult to evaluate it objectively. I certainly would not have given Fargo the top prize in 1996, nor would I so award it today.
I wouldn't have awarded Breaking the Waves, either, despite its devastating power (inextricable from Emily Watson's preternaturally sensitive performance). In many ways, it's an amazing movie. But, to me, it leaves an unseemly impression, as do other, similarly powerful Lars von Trier films. Certain gendered psychodramatic conventions, like the madwoman as martyr, etc., seem very much intact. But, then again, the great Katrin Cartlidge is on hand, transcendent as ever...
Given your expertise in African cinema and your knowledge of Flora Gomes's work, I'm especially intrigued to hear your thoughts on Tree of Blood. What resonated most or least for you in this movie, on its own or in the contexts of Gomes's portfolio or West African cinema?
I'm a fan of the film, which I recently saw for the first time. Like other African filmmakers of his generation, Gomes is particularly concerned with the depredations of the independent African state, and I admire the way he weaves an environmentalist message into Tree of Blood, which is gorgeously shot, to boot. The themes of migrant labor within the regional context of West Africa, Western technological influence, and African tradition are part of the fabric of the film, and they are themes to which Gomes has repeatedly returned in his career. I think of him as one of the greatest directors of child performers—a gift that is especially apparent in Tree of Blood. What I love the most about Gomes's work is that it's difficult to classify. Gomes went to high school in Cuba and later studied filmmaking at the Cuban Film Institute, and he has often described the influence of Cuban cinematic traditions on his work. (The influence of Tomás Gutierrez's 1966 satire Death of a Bureaucrat is, I think, particularly vivid in Gomes's work, which similarly questions state authority and condemns various bureaucratic morasses.) But the influence of Ousmane Sembene is there, too. Gomes has produced numerous, brilliant variations on Sembene's depiction of state corruption in his 1975 film Xala. If you admire Tree of Blood and would like to acquaint yourself with more of Gomes's work, consider his remarkable films Mortu Nega (1988) and The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1991), both of which are available on DVD from California Newsreel.
As we saw again this year, Cannes is not too reliable for recognizing African cinema in its Main Competition, which in turn means U.S. distributors get even fewer cues to pick up those films. What are the best ways for interested audiences to see interesting work coming out of Africa?
This is a tough question, because the answers are almost never heartening. Distribution has always been an obstacle for African films, and it's depressingly of a piece with a pervasive disinterest in African cinema, even among those who fancy themselves serious, "adventurous" moviegoers. I once confronted a bigwig at Criterion about the collection's conspicuous lack of African films. Her response? "Well, I saw a few a couple of years ago—I don't remember which—and I really didn't like them. We don't think they're for us." This is familiar language—the language of "them" and "us"—and it sustains the exoticist treatment and lack of availability of African cinema.
Big cities occasionally come through, though. New York, for instance, has an annual African Film Festival at Lincoln Center. FESPACO, in Burkina Faso, remains the biggest and most illustrious pan-African film festival; it's held every two years in Ouagadougou. Durban and London host annual African film festivals, big ones that feature films from across the continent. And the annual African Studies Association conference always boasts screenings of new African films. I recommend that people keep checking Twitter and Facebook. Grassroots promotion remains necessary for African cinema, and it's often abundant, pointing to public screenings, unheralded DVD releases, and acquisitions by Netflix and other streaming services.
Switching gears, I know you're a champion of Robert Altman's Kansas City, which also hovered somewhat off the radar at Cannes, and in most retrospective accounts of his career. What makes the movie special for you?
Its musicological significance is, I hope, beyond dispute. It functions partly—beautifully—as an essay film on jazz (and race, and politics, and the Depression, and the title city, and even Jean Harlow fandom). The film is as graceful and fluid as the best of Altman's career, even if it lacks the incredible highs and abundance of great performances of Nashville. It's as richly detailed as a great novel. Think of Miranda Richardson's vial of opium, which connects her to other addicts in the Altman canon, like Julie Christie's Mrs. Miller. Or think of the train station, or the telephone and telegraph company, or the way that the markers of Harlow worship multiply in Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance. They also abound in more material ways, in the house she shares with Dermot Mulroney, and to which she eventually repairs with Richardson.
Then there's Harry Belafonte, who's brilliant—scary and sexy. He never had a better role—the film is a remarkable tribute to him, even if he doesn't get to sing. Jane Adams is perfect as the uppity social reformer. Watch the way she offers a cursory "thank you" while rudely dismissing someone who doesn't give her exactly what she wants, or walks past the girl she's supposed to "save," blithely oblivious of her identity. That girl, as played by Ajia Mignon Johnson, is herself delightful. I love how the film keeps opening up to reveal more about characters like the custodian, who has a home of her own and a loving family, and who politely endures Richardson's inane chatter about race relations—and then doesn't bat an eye when she's finally relieved of this unanticipated duty. She just gets back to her life, without fuss. This movie gives me so much joy—even if its ending is startlingly harsh (not unlike that of McCabe). Belafonte! The music! Those dueling saxophones! Glorious. And "I didn't vote" may be the ideal final line for this remarkable film.
Looking at the other films in or out of competition that year, are there others for which you'd advocate strongly, or filmmakers you consistently admire even if you don't know these particular works?
I'm a champion of Hard Eight, a wonderful film full of fine performances. I don't think that Gwyneth Paltrow has ever been as good as she is here, and the film is, of course, a marvelous tribute to Philip Baker Hall. Microcosmos is a landmark that I love and have taught in various intro-to-film classes. It's irresistible. Looking for Richard is one of my favorite essay films. I remember living through what I like to call the Barbaraissance—that moment in the mid-1990s when Barbara Hershey was back and better than ever, and simply astonishing in The Portrait of a Lady). I'll admit that it carried me through the dreadful The Pallbearer. (A bleached-blond Barbara as Mrs. Robinson? Yes, please!)
Of the films that I've seen, my favorite is Irma Vep: an endlessly amusing little puzzle film; a smart, inventive discourse on film history; and a great vehicle for Maggie Cheung. It's so good, in fact, that it made the ridiculous Clouds of Sils Maria all but insufferable, at least to me. Looking at this list, I'm amazed that I still haven't seen Trees Lounge. I remember glimpsing the VHS cover every day at the video store, and failing to rent it every time. I'm equally amazed that I hadn't even heard of Arthur Penn's Inside. Penn is a director whose career I find fascinating, and I would love to see this 1996 take on apartheid.