Viewing Rather than Going to the Movies
Congratulations, Cineaste! Over the past tumultuous and bewildering year Cineaste has maintained a high standard of articles, interviews, and reviews. One of its great strengths has been the ability of each issue to offer incisive comment on films we may already have seen, films we may not have thought of seeing—and sometimes films we’re glad we don’t have to see. The range has covered past, present, and (especially in interviews) prospects for the future. An equally important element has been the long view on topics in the editorial page, and that in the Winter 2021 issue is an eloquent account of the paradoxical situation we find ourselves in. We have an unprecedented degree of access to films (and live performances) via streaming platforms; the increasingly rapid transition for new work from release in cinemas to formats for home viewing; and, since the beginning of the pandemic, another downturn in the fortunes of cinemas.
Movie watching has never been so easy, to the point where we tend to be surprised that we can’t have access to a specific production. We’ve been spoiled. Cinemas have of course reopened, albeit tentatively, but I find I’m mildly chagrined when I read newspaper reviews of a new arrival when it turns out it isn’t available for home viewing, and then being rather ashamed at this newly acquired attitude. After all, apart from the harm done to the livelihoods of cinema owners and staff, “viewing” isn’t the whole story. The actual “going” has always been a vital element of moviegoing—time out, shared with other audience members in a manner similar to that of the theater, but not identical to it. Thank you, Cineaste, for reminding us of the realities of the system that supplies us with the movies, and for keeping argument and engagement alive.
Russell Jackson Birmingham, England
Historians and the Movies
I was delighted to see that the Winter 2021 issue featured a variety of articles on history and film: oral history (Brian Neve’s “Romanticism, Realism, and the Blacklist: An Interview with Abraham Polonsky”); autobiography as history (Robert Rosenstone’s “Warren Beatty, Reds, and I”); and revisionist history (J. E. Smyth’s “Playing Her Script Their Way: A Reconsideration of Mae West”). This confluence raised for me the question: “What role does the historian play in the history he or she is writing?
Neve was a facilitator, who wishes he had been a more active participant, posing more potentially contentious questions. Rosenstone is a historian of his own motives and activities. And Smyth is a questioner without answers.
Rosenstone, like Icarus, flew too close to the Hollywood sun, and his amour propre still bears the scars. I discerned in Rosenstone’s article (and the review he wrote of Reds in 1982) an underlying tone of resentment against Warren Beatty and regret for his [Rosenstone’s] notion that he could play a significant role in an important film. He devoted a great deal of time to reading the scripts and offering constructive criticism, much of which was ignored. Beatty rejected Rosenstone’s requests that he be given a part in the movie and for a tie-in to Rosenstone’s biography of John Reed. And, he admits, that in his role as consultant he invented dialogue and facts. Finally, when confronted by Beatty about his critical review of Reds, Rosenstone adopted a defensive posture. To this day, Rosenstone is ambivalent about the film, citing its importance and audaciousness, while criticizing Beatty’s motives, his approach, and his pandering to prejudices and expectations. In sum, Beatty avoided taking the “the risk that serious art must take.”
J. E. Smyth has a different problem. She does not know what to make of her subject, and she poses an unanswerable question: “Mae West: feminist icon?” followed by several other key questions Smyth does not answer. Smyth has, in her campaign to restore strong Hollywood women to the historical record, always been sure of what they represented and accomplished. She also clearly admired them. Here, however, she struggles to make West relevant, to find admirable qualities in her, and to answer her thematic question: What does Mae West mean today? On the one hand, West demanded and got control of her image and material, but, on the other, she presented a questionable image. Smyth provides a long list of failures on West’s part, but identifies only one success: She regularly got the best of lousy bosses and creeps. Smyth parodies West’s postfilm efforts to maintain her image and undermines her claim to be “a selfhelp pedagogue for other women.” What is missing from this analysis is what Smyth states is missing from West scholarship: “a careful analysis of her scripts and their development, the work she sourced from other writers (male and female) and credited or did not credit, and a closer look at what the censors objected to or passed without comment.”
Both Rosenstone and Smyth, in their respective critiques, ignore a major element of filmmaking in Hollywood: West and Beatty, whatever independence each had achieved, had to work within a system to get their pictures made. Compromises were necessary. It seems ungenerous to criticize them for doing what everyone else in the industry was doing or had done. All three histories would have been more effective if these historians had transcended their subject matter. Neve, as he now acknowledges, should have been less enthralled by Polonsky and asked more direct questions; Rosenstone needed to step outside the frame of the story he was telling; Smyth could have overcome her impressionistic approach by using primary material.
Robert A. Rosenstone replies:
I wonder if Larry Ceplair is a careful reader. He somehow misses the humor and self-irony that pervade my article and at the same time shows himself to be not much of an amateur psychologist. A good deal of his analysis of me, personally, and my attitude towards Reds, is based on my very first essay on film, published in 1982, rather than on any of some forty essays and four books on the history film that I have produced since then. Among them is a 2013 article devoted to critiquing my first essay as the naive response of a historian who did not yet understand the language and practices of film. “Warren, Reds, and I” is meant to show the first steps in the education of a traditional historian into a broader and more appreciative way of thinking about history on the screen, as well as an oblique thank you to the man, who, unconsciously to be sure, had a major impact on my life and career.
J. E. Smyth replies:
Oh, wow. Misleading Web Exclusive
Contrary to Matthew Hays’s assertion in his article, “When Documentaries Collide: How Should Nonfiction Stories Be Told,” I was not given a proper opportunity to comment on his discussion of my film United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. Hays contends that there is some sort of “feud” between the makers of United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague. There is no “feud.” There is no “war.” There are, however, substantive differences in political analysis, philosophical and historical stances, and approaches to documentary that he chooses to gloss over, de-emphasize, or ignore in favor of sensationalizing and personalizing those dissimilarities.
In United in Anger, I tried to tell the story of AIDS Activism from the point of view of the grassroots activists themselves. I believe that real political change occurs when groups of people directly confront the institutions doing harm and force them to accept the very workable solutions devised by activists. ACT UP’s success in changing the way that drugs are discovered, studied, and approved in this country was a direct result of demonstrations at the FDA and NIH and the continuing pressure put on those agencies. The change in the definition of AIDS that saved the lives of millions of women and IV drug users around the world resulted from the four-year campaign spearheaded by ACT UP.
The film depicts and analyzes a model for successful grass-roots political action, detailing the structures that made ACT UP successful. I tried to put the audience on the ground with the activists. Rather than using video shot from afar that makes the demonstrators seem like an angry mass, I chose video filmed from within the demonstration that brings out the individual as well as examining the organizational intentions. ACT UP’s most successful actions are scrutinized in detail with archival video highlighting the debates within the group. These include Target City Hall, Stop the Church, Storm the NIH and the four-year campaign to change the CDC definition of AIDS. In addition, there is a timeline showing many other actions. There are sections on affinity groups, ACT UP’s graphics and AIDS Activist Video that explore the mechanisms of ACT UP’s achievements. I tried to show ACT UP as diverse and multidimensional with a simultaneity of action that made so much of its success possible. The interviews, which come from the ACT UP Oral History Project co-directed by Sarah Schulman and me, are edited to emphasize fully thought-out ideas rather than sound bites.
For those who are interested in exploring this further, the film’s website www.unitedinager.com has a Study Guide that explores many of the themes of the film. For additional study, actuporalhistory.org now has the 187 interviews in their entirety, over 350 hours of video, plus over 100 hours of AIDS Activist Video. For those interested in an extended debate detailing the differences between the two films, you can watch “Revisiting the AIDS Crisis,” an hour-and-a-half long discussion that took place at the New School. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jJ1nOsT4uQ
Director, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP
Co-Director, ACT UP Oral History Project
CINEASTE, Spring 2022 3