Wednesday, April 10, 2013

John Gianvito by Nicole Brenez

To accompany a recent blog post on John Gianvito I've translated an article about him by Nicole Brenez that first appeared in the Journal section of Cahiers du Cinéma (March 2012), which was published in conjunction with his visit to Paris for Le Cinéma Du Reel. 
Brenez is the programmer of experimental films at the Cinémathèque française (a position she has held since '96) as well a professor and author of many books. Her first collaboration with Cahiers was in their 2000 Hors-Série issue Aux Frontières Du Cinéma, which corresponded with a massive program of French experimental films that she curated Jeune, Dure et Pure (the issue also includes a good article by Stéphane Delorme, Found Footage, mode d'emploi). In the interview Brenez praises René Vautier, "The most important film in the history of cinema is Afrique 50." Since then she started to occasionally contribute to Cahiers and when she does it really stands out. Some of her most recent pieces includes reviews of Film socialisme, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Go Go Tales, and reviews of books about F.J. Ossang and Akram Zaatari.
Brenez has collaborated with Philippe Grandrieux on a documentary about Masao Adachi, Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre resolution.
Brenez's only English language book is on Abel Ferrara, which was translated by Adrian Martin who also recently published a book where he explores figural film theory in her writing, Last Day Every Day. Brenez has an assortment of contributions in a variety of academic film books including ones on Ken Jacobs and Jean Epstein. In her contribution to Robert Bresson (Revised) she writes about Marcel Hanoun, "an extreme-leftist Bresson, whose superb work deserves also to be seen around the world."
Brenez’s writing carries a revolutionary charge: whether it is through programming the films of the Jocelyne Sabb or her text on Carole Roussopoulos in Caméra militante (a perfect title to describe Brenez's ethos) there is an emphasis on using film as tool of social activism. This continues the politicized tradition of the seventies and might just make her the most Godardian writer today at Cahiers. - D.D.
John Gianvito, and productive contemplation. by Nicole Brenez 

Sometimes a work arises that reassures us about the capabilities cinema has to fight on every front and to also achieve an incredible totality: formal radicalism, activist requirements, and speculative autonomy. The work of John Gianvito not only achieves this ideal but also continuously intensifies his interventions on this ground by creating sites of protest, through his films, about imperialism in his country, ""There is no decent place to stand in a massacre,"says Leonard Cohen in his song,The Captain. To live, like for myself, in a military society, which is the most aggressive one in the planet, forces one to measure his own responsibilities in regards to the action of the state towards what they do at home and internationally. Neutrality is not an option."

History Lesson
Starting with his first video-essay, according to Gianvito, cinema's potential lies in its fight against institutional oppression: Schooldeath is a "super 8 semi-surrealist short-film that was filmed to capture the perspective of the objections toward, and the obstruction of, the scholastic administration during my studies in an Jesuit military institution in Manhattan." Informed by the films of Alexander Mackendrick, Richard Leacock and Don Levy; a passionate reader of Becket, Vitrac and Joyce; Gianvito still claims that his major influences are the films of Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel. But it's Andrei Tarkovsky whom he writes a book about in 2006. From 1978 (The Direct Approach) to 2001 (The Mad songs of Fernanda Hussein), Gianvito multiplies his stylistic experiments and structures, ranging from documentary to fictions, individual works to that of collectives (Address Unknown, 1986), that manifest through their parallel montages a melancholic rage that boils within himself about the state of the world (The Flower of Pain, 1983, What Nobody Saw, 1990). The United States appear as an inhospitable territory, haunted and in ruins, to the point that morals have crumpled in rubble and are being transformed into concrete debris like in Puncture Wounds (2002), or where September 11th in America is contrasted with that of Chile, or how it feels like after coming back from Iraq and being in New Mexico like in The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein.

In 2007, blending the influences of Trop tôt, trop tard by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (1982) with that of Howard Zinn, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is a heightened visual hymn about the history of emancipatory struggles on American territory, from native resistance all the way to the manifestations against the war in Iraq. Then, for four years, Gianvito dedicates himself to a considerable visual terrain: "a critique of the American military in regards to the toxic contamination around an ancient American base in the Philippines (the largest overseas installation before Iraq)." So is born Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010) that prolongs and radicalizes into the present the "history lessons" of Profit Motive and will eventually be completed in an accompanying film Wake (Subik), which will be about the naval base in Subik.

Meanwhile, Gianvito started another project, and this time it is a collective: Far From Afghanistan, which is a critical examination of the ten years of the American invasion and its human, ecological and economic toll. Like for Chris Marker in 1967 when he brought together many directors to make Loin du Vietnam, Gianvito brings together the strength of many activist filmmakers from different generations and countries: Travis Wilkerson, Jon Jost, Minda Martin, Soon-Mi Yoo. Partly funded by crowd funding, and diffused for a few weeks on the internet in a "October Edition", Far From Afghanistan's strengths are that of the power of documentation, reflection, description, imagination, and conviction against the discouraging evidence of what has been happening and the instituted injustices in Iraq: fighting against "imperial impunity."

On Alert
Establishing history, transmission, and intervention: these three functions, when used in his films, is where Gianvito excels. As before he was a filmmaker Gianvito was a programmer at the Harvard Film Archieve and MIT, a professor in direction and production at the University of Massachusetts, and a film-critic. Which goes to say that when Gianvito creates an image he knows what context it is being inscribed in, what it represents, and what artistic and social sources it can build upon for the greatest effect. "To talk about politics, for me, means talking about the politics of images. I usually begin my class 'Cinema and Social Change' by introducing the book The Media Monopoly, which was first published in 1982, by Ben Bagdikian, a media analyst. Bagdikian observes the consequences that comes from media control by 50 firms. Four years after the book's first publication the number drops to 26, and by 1990 the total is 23, and by 1996 the total is 10. In the book's latest edition, Bagdikian explains that 5 giant conglomerates control the media: Time-Warner, Dines, Murdoch's News Corporation, Viacom and Bertelsman in Germany. One must also include General Electric. What do they own? All of the television broadcasting networks, all of the Hollywood studios, 4 out of the 5 companies that sell 90% of the music in the US, the majority of cable television etc. The failure to recognize this as a major obstacle to our understanding limits our experience of reality, which is a symptom of their "success.""

In the battle that rages between free media and the conglomerates, and contrary to arguments against the inefficacity of art, Gianvito situates with precision the responsibilities of cinema: to invite a "productive contemplation", transmit the memory of struggles, strengthen the courage of those who fight, and ignite debates. "If films were unable to bring about any change, why have so many of them been banned and censured in so many countries? Why was there a lot of effort that went into stopping the production of Herbert J. Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954) at each of its different stages? Why did Raymond Gleyzer "disapear"? Why is Jafar Panahi under house arrest and under surveillance? Why was the Tibetan filmmaker Dhondub Wangchen imprisoned and tortured?" In My Heart Swims in Blood, the episode by Gianvito in Far From Afghanistan, Minerva's owl does not fly by day or night, she just remains there: alert and obstinate. 

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