Saturday, September 27, 2014

SF SCREENINGS OF CURT MCDOWELL FILMS

During my recent stay in San Francisco I had the opportunity to attend two separate events showcasing the short films of Curt McDowell. The first—under the aegis of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' seventh edition of Bay Area Now (BAN7) and in collaboration with [ 2nd floor projects ]—was a program of five shorts, screened in conjunction with the BAN7 exhibition EROS / ON. The second was a companion event at the Roxie Theater screening two more of McDowell's rarely-seen short films.

As synopsized by YBCA, Curt McDowell (1945–1987) was a filmmaker, actor, visual artist, and writer. He arrived in San Francisco in the mid-1960s to attend the San Francisco Art Institute in the painting department and quickly changed course to become a filmmaker to work with George Kuchar, within a period that witnessed the Summer of Love, gay liberation, and the onset of AIDS, to which he succumbed at the age of 42. The author of numerous films that recast the American dream of plenty in pansexual terms, McDowell, like so many artists of his generation, indulged in the era's carnal abundance, and his appetites and experiences are reflected in the work. Thundercrack! (1975), his well-known feature, was cowritten with George Kuchar. He directed over 30 films, such as Confessions (1971), Weiners and Buns Musical (1972), Loads (1980), and Sparkle's Tavern (1985), celebrating sex as well as genre riffing and autobiographical narratives that bear the influences of Jack Smith's lush, DIY camp aesthetic; Rainer Werner Fassbinder's explosive melodrama; and Nan Goldin's glimpses of countercultural bohemia. McDowell had a vast history with 101-year-old Roxie Theater in San Francisco. The theater was reinvented in the 1970s as a vital repertory and alternative first-run cinema by his partner Robert Evans, along with Bill Banning, Peter Moore, and Anita Monga.

Melinda McDowell [Milks], Curt's sibling and an actor in many of his films, was present to introduce both programs and to engage in Q&As at both venues. She qualified when she took to the YBCA screening room stage that she was not so good at coming up with things to say about her brother's films and was better at answering questions about them. "Because I know the answers." Pulling a list of the evening's scheduled films from her purse, she asserted how fortunate an audience we were to be able to see a rarely-seen video by George Kuchar that he made for a one-off show in Chicago a few years ago. No one but her has a copy. Melinda didn't know Kuchar had made this video until she attended the show in Chicago, which featured some of Kuchar's films along with McDowell's. The video is basically Kuchar talking about McDowell and introducing him to a film-viewing public who might not know much about him, including mention of their own romance. People who knew both of them, Melinda asserted, would find this video of special interest because of the opportunity to hear George's side of his interaction with McDowell.

As for McDowell's short film Confessions (1972), Melinda confirmed that her brother was literally confessing to their parents and telling them in detail every bad thing he'd ever done. Asked if her parents ever saw Confessions, Melinda answered no, of course not. "They would have been horrified." As insight into the film, Melinda noted that the patchwork quilt Curt lies on while confessing to their mom and dad was made by their mom, who also wrote the lyrics to the music playing in the background. Curt was a sentimental, loving son, Melinda insisted, and Confessions wasn't made out of disrespect. Rather, it was made out of respect for their Mom, who he loved.

In his lovely broadsheet / chapbook written to accompany the selection of films in the [ 2nd floor projects ] screening, Johnny Ray Huston recalls: "I saw Confessions for the first time, and it put the world together for me, breaking through silence and leaping across states to share three-ways and four-ways and so many secret jewels of experience with mom and dad." And asks: "How much joy and lust and friendship can be crammed into one 16-minute movie? 'To put it into words is just not that easy to do.' After a tearful confession, Curt casts one true love as a leading man and lets the images do most of the talking, so what you know about him is felt. The difference between a messy guy in bloom and a perfect lifeless doll. The beauty of women's faces and men's cocks in close-up, and dirty bare feet, stepping forward. A live-wire radio built by editing that switches from folk to blues in a heartbeat. Fanfare, a cum shot, and a burst of applause as the director walks away from the camera, into San Francisco daylight. There's no happier ending in cinema."

With regard to the third film on the program, Ronnie (1972), Melinda advised that Ronnie, the young man who is the subject of the film, never had a clue that anyone would ever actually be watching the film. He thought he was just doing something for a little bit of money that day and that would be the end of it. "Boy, was he wrong," Melinda laughed, "because so many people have seen Ronnie." But he never knew. Though he'd be an older man now, Melinda expressed interest in seeing him again to say hi, if anyone knew how to locate him. Watching Ronnie, Melinda said she holds her breath throughout the entire film.

Huston writes of Ronnie: "Ronnie shaving, the camera staring down at his tight torso. Ronnie lighting a cigarette, a valentine heart tattooed on his forearm, a man on a horse dangling from his necklace, and his tighty-whiteys peaking out over his khakis. Ronnie reclining on the hardwood floor. Ronnie standing erect as the camera glides up and down his body, from his stout face to the shiny black boots on his feet. Ronnie scratching his cock. Ronnie naked in monologue in front of the window overlooking the street, the camera looking up from between his legs. Ronnie with his hands held behind him, a belt welt on his hairy, meaty right cheek. Ronnie on his elbows, laying stomach down on the floor, his back arched and his legs spread to show off his glorious ass.

"Ronnie, 'a very fussy guy' who doesn't 'believe in letters,' but who is writing a book he hopes will be a 'good seller,' titled Black and White. Ronnie, who wishes 'the Lord could come down off the cross and change things.' Ronnie, who still could have been a model for Old Reliable, or the subject of a story in Boyd McDonald's Straight to Hell, if he wasn't lucky enough to be immortalized as the star of Ronnie, a gorgeous black-and-white movie directed by Curt McDowell."

The evening's fourth film, A Visit to Indiana (1970), has received a response over the years that Curt would never have dreamed possible. That it would be purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, that it would be included in the Library of Congress, Curt would not have had a clue that the film would come to be seen as a social commentary.

As for the final film of the evening, Boggy Depot (1973), Melinda was convinced curator Margaret Tedesco included it in the program specifically because it's one of Melinda's favorites. A musical, Boggy Depot starts Curt, George Kuchar, and Ainslie Pryor, a beautiful young lady who starred in several of Curt's and George's films. Johnny Ray Huston asked Melinda if she could talk about the songs in Boggy Depot, "because I really love them and they're hilarious." Melinda admitted to loving all of Curt's musicals. Weiners and Buns (1972) is another of her favorites. She said Curt and Mark Ellinger loved to make those songs together. She has numerous reel-to-reel tapes of the songs those two wrote together, though she wasn't actually there during the songwriting sessions and wasn't personally involved.

Curt made a lot of his short films as a consequence of the fact that film was expensive. If he was working on a bigger project like the 60-minute Peed Into the Wind (1972), or any of the films that were a little bit longer, if there was any film left at the end of the roll he wanted to use it up, every inch of it, so he would come up with some short film written right then and there.

To wrap up the program, they included the five-minute Thundercrack! trailer narrated by George Kuchar, partly to entice the audience to purchase the DVD next year when it's finally released to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary. Melinda promised a great DVD release party that everyone could attend.

Asked if Curt knew about George before he met him, Melinda confirmed that, yes, Curt had heard of George, was his champion, and even had something to do with George coming to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute. George left the Bronx behind, came to San Francisco, and stayed.

Admitting that Curt had kept explicit diaries since the age of 17, I asked if any of that material was going to be made available? "Heck no," Melinda answered, explaining that in his diaries Curt revealed every detail of every encounter with every person, naming names. For all the time that she was with him, Curt wrote about her in his diaries like they were her diaries too. She wouldn't have let anything be published about George because George was private. Curt wasn't. He didn't care who read his diary entries. If it was up to Curt, he would have had the diaries published; but, Melinda was concerned with liability and privacy issues about all of the people written about in the diaries, since Curt was admittedly promiscuous. She's sure many of those people would not want to be named. Even if she changed their names, people would be able to figure out who was who.

Margaret Tedesco brought up the fact that Curt's prolific output as an artist was made all the more remarkable for recognizing that he was blind in one eye. It gave him an advantage, Melinda suggested, because—when you look with two eyes—an image is three-dimensional. With one eye, an image is not three-dimensional and much easier to render two-dimensionally on paper, creating an illusion of three-dimensionality, which worked for him. Being blind in one eye was not a drawback for him. Further, as one could guess, Curt was quite the voyeur but binoculars were of no use to him. Melinda bought him a monocular and he was so proud of it and enjoyed it immensely. He could look out the window at guys across the street.

One piece of good news Melinda shared with her YBCA audience was that Mark Toscano, an archivist of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences—and formerly involved with Canyon Cinema—asked the Academy 10 years back if they would be interested in having Curt's films restored and preserved at the Academy and having new prints struck? They said no, of course not, no, because of the content. But just recently Melinda found out that the Academy has changed its mind, perhaps due to new blood, and has asked for all of Curt's films—including ones most people haven't even seen yet—to preserve them at the Academy.

A week or so later, Melinda was present to introduce a second set of Curt McDowell films at the Roxie Theater, specifically Taboo: The Single and the LP (1980), which Curt made based on some bizarre graffiti he discovered first in one restroom, then another, and then another, all around San Francisco. He couldn't help himself and had to make a film about the Abner family referenced in this graffiti, which included statements like "Abner slapped hard like blue magic." So Curt created a character named Blue Magic. The characters in Taboo, in fact, enact statements made in the graffiti. But the mystery remains: "Who wrote the graffiti?" There were only the three members of the family: Abner, Dorothy and Mary. Recently, Melinda determined through a Google search that they were real people. She found the gravestone of Abner and Dorothy and discovered that Mary—the part she played in the film—is alive and living near her. Mary would be 74 now, and though Melinda has never met her, she feels Mary would be horrified with Curt's interpretation of her family in Taboo. With that in mind, Melinda said we would be seeing familiar faces—George Kuchar, Marion Eaton, and herself—in this "strange little film."

Melinda isn't quite sure what Curt was trying to do with Taboo and asked her audience to give her a clue if they knew. What is clear is that Curt had a crush on Fahed Martin and wanted to see more of him, literally. The film might have been an excuse for that. George had shown her drawings and pictures Curt had made of this young man. He was clearly having a great time interacting with Fahed and making Taboo gave him a chance to film him scantily clad in wet pants.

Asked about Curt's involvement with the Roxie, Melinda recalled that he worked at the theater for many years. But he also fell in love and married Robert Evans, one of the original owners of the Roxie.

Sparkle's Tavern is another McDowell film that few people have seen. "Let's talk about what it is and what it isn't," Melinda suggested. It is not like Thundercrack! There are no hardcore scenes in Sparkle's Tavern. When Curt decided he wanted to make this film, he asked Melinda what her main fantasy was. She had just recently returned from Wyoming and she told him that her fantasy was to be in a room full of cowboys who all wanted her. So he made that happen in the film. What the film turned into, however, was a more personal story for Curt. He represented himself and Melinda as the brother and sister in Sparkle's Tavern whose naughtiness reflected their personal naughtiness in making films like Thundercrack!, etc. But what it was really about was Curt's desire to be publicly accepted by his parents. Even though he knew they loved him very much, he wanted to be acknowledged in public by them, which was hard for them to do at the time. What he created was a story that had this happy ending.

Melinda apologized after the screening for her performance in Sparkle's Tavern, reminding us she was not really an actress. "I'm not sorry I'm in it," she said, "just sorry you had to see it." She hoped we could get past her performance to see what the film was supposed to be. She praised Connie Richmond's performance as Brenda. And George Kuchar's performance as Mr. Pupik. She asked if anyone knew what "pupik" meant? In Yiddish, it means "belly button."

Melinda mentioned the scene with Brandon where she's lying on her bed crying. She didn't know how to cry for the camera so they literally shoved an onion under her pillow. But the tears at the end of the film were real because the little note she's handed in the scene was written by George who said, "There is shit on your shoe." He had to know that would make her cry. Curt didn't know why she was really crying at the end of that scene. He asked if she wanted to stop filming but she said no, and encouraged him to keep filming while she was crying (even if it was because of the note).

As for working with Marion Eaton, Melinda described her as being exceptionally professional and knowing all her lines at all times. She wanted to be like Melinda and Curt's mother and tried her best. She's local so she couldn't capture the true Midwestern accent their mother had, but she tried. Melinda never wanted to tell her that she didn't sound anything like their mother because she thought Marion's performance was great just the way it was.

A piece of good news Melinda recently discovered is that—out of the 65 films that the National Film Preservation Foundation have chosen to preserve this year—one of them is Sparkle's Tavern. Curt never would have dreamed that would happen and that Sparkle's Tavern would have been chosen to be preserved for posterity. He would have been so honored.

Once Melinda opened it up to the audience, I was quick to assert that—despite her own humility towards her acting chops—she was a radiant presence on the screen. Melinda said my comment made her "a smiling fool." My question, however, was about the film's spectacular costumes, especially her final costume. Curt created the costume, she answered, and she still has it, though admitting she can't fit into it anymore. It was unquestionably a spectacular creation with its Elizabethan stand-up collar and hand-beading.

One final piece of news is that—in preparing Thundercrack! for its DVD release, and its inclusion in the Academy archives—she came across some footage in the short print of Thundercrack! that had not been included in the long print. She explained that when Thundercrack! was experiencing its cult status at midnight movies, it was considered a little too long and was cut down to accommodate midnight crowds. That left only one long print. Making the situation even more problematic, Melinda recalled that several of the traveling prints of Thundercrack! were confiscated. The first time Curt took the film into England he had no trouble because he had written on the label of the film cannister: Thundercrack! Weather Conditions of the Southwest United States. They let it in. They didn't know. But the second time he tried to get into England with the film, they confiscated it at the border. Another time, the film was pulled out of the projector by the Montreal police at a film festival. So several of the prints have been lost and the effort is to compile one final version from all the elements left.

Of Thundercrack!, Johnny Ray Huston writes: "Though Thundercrack! is as unique as a pair of George Washington peepholes, it has deep roots in horror and comedy. The film's orgiastic cast are free-love descendants of the frighteningly funny eccentrics in James Whale's The Old Dark House. Its trip to a haunted house is a Midwestern rite of passage."

[My thanks to Johnny Ray Huston for permission to replicate passages from his broadsheet / chapbook entitled "the single and the LP" and lovingly inscribed, "For Michael, my compadre!"]

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SEISMOGRAPH OF AN ERA—The Evening Class Interview With Peter von Bagh

The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF56) presented its 2013 Mel Novikoff Award to legendary cinephile Peter von Bagh for his lifelong commitment to international film, accompanied by an onstage conversation with Anita Monga and a screening of Helsinki, Forever (Finland, 2008), von Bagh's ode to Finland's capital and its cinema. SFIFF56 likewise screened Mikko Niskanen's Eight Deadly Shots (Finland, 1972), a rarely seen epic drama, considered by many a lost masterpiece of Finnish cinema and personally selected by von Bagh for its U.S. premiere at the festival.

"Peter von Bagh embodies the essence of the Mel Novikoff Award," said Rachel Rosen, San Francisco Film Society's director of programming. "He has worked indefatigably and infectiously to share his appreciation of world cinema and has many good stories to share about the filmmakers and icons he's met during his half century in the movies."

Throughout his career Peter von Bagh wore many different hats in the cinematic arena. Besides being a film director, one especially attracted to compilation films, von Bagh had been a television and radio producer, book publisher, curator and program director of the Finnish Film Archive, professor of film history, artistic director and cofounder of the Midnight Sun Film Festival and artistic director of Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato festival. As a film critic and historian, he (co)wrote and/or (co)edited more than 30 books, including The History of World Cinema, 1975 and 1998. Regarded as a Finnish national treasure, von Bagh is a true master of international film and an extraordinary example of cinema lived to the fullest.

With both SFIFF56 screenings of Helsinki, Forever and Eight Deadly Shots, I was keenly aware of something von Bagh articulated in his documentary Sodankylä Forever (Finland, 2010-2011): "Film screenings, like films themselves, are part of history; the seismograph of the era." With his passing earlier this week, I recall the privilege of speaking with von Bagh when he was in San Francisco in 2013 to receive the Mel Novikoff Award. He was unpretentious and generous with his intellect and gifted me the four-DVD set of Sodankylä Forever; one of the treasures in my library. My thanks go out to Bill Proctor of the San Francisco Film Society for facilitating our conversation.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on receiving the Mel Novikoff Award from the San Francisco Film Society.

Peter von Bagh: Thank you.

Guillén: One of my predominant interests is in film festival culture and I thought you would be the perfect person to talk to about that.

Von Bagh: That's okay, but with the strong limitation that I don't go to film festivals. I don't like them, though I run a couple of them.

Guillén: Let's talk a bit about the two festivals you run. Can you synopsize for me their singular focus? How long you've been working with each? And how you were drawn into running them when, as you confess, you don't like film festivals?

Von Bagh: In Finland it was more natural in a way because I was programming for the Finnish Film Archive [the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland] for 20 years or so. I started there in 1967 and was programming there all the time until the mid-80s. Originally, I was the Executive Director of the Archive but then I concentrated on programming because I felt that was my thing—I didn't want to go to meetings or anything—so I had that background.

Then I finished at the Finnish Film Archive in 1985, which was very sad for me. I was programming even in my dreams and had no outlets for my thoughts. But that same year Anssi Mänttäri, a Finnish director, was in a small village in the north out in the middle of nowhere—I don't know why—and it was November and all dark. Anssi was probably drunk and was looking out the window at ... nothing. Even during the daytime there were no people around, just emptiness. Then he came up with the idea: "Why not start an international film festival here?" Certainly, the most absurd of all origins for a festival. He was associated with two emerging talents of the time, Mika and Aki Kaurismäki, there were the three of them, and Anssi contacted me and asked me if I would like to become the director of the festival? That's how the Midnight Sun Film Festival started.

At first, I doubted the idea could work. I felt it was too absurd to travel so far for a film festival. But within a month I agreed to do it. We already had good contacts. I had been around for a while with the Archive and had already published Elokuvan historia (History of Cinema) by the mid-70s, which was the only survey of world cinema published by a Scandinavian. But you must remember this was before video. So how did I see films? I went to archives and film shows everywhere. I also had an interest in interviewing film directors. So within the first group of people that we invited to the festival, I already knew Samuel Fuller. I knew Bertrand Tavernier. I'd met the Kaurismäki Brothers with Jonathan Demme. I knew Jean-Pierre Gorin. They were all willing to come as guests to the festival. In fact, since that first festival, no one has refused to come to the Midnight Sun Film Festival. It's just too strange to refuse.

So the festival was created and one specialty of the festival started on the very first morning of the first day, which was that every day at 10:00 there would be a two-hour discussion with one of the guests. It was an astounding event for a film festival. Usually, conversations with guests are flashy and rapid; but, we dedicated time for discussion, which became a signature for the festival. Several guests have since said that it was like a psychoanalytic session. But it was not all serious. There were plenty of funny moments and lots of laughing during the festival, but basically we respected the filmmakers as serious human beings and not joke machines at press meetings. We concentrated on seeing films. And the filmmakers would have time to talk to people on the street. Many film festivals destroy themselves by isolating the big names from their public. At the Midnight Sun Film Festival we didn't even care if someone was a "big name" or not, everybody behaved, no one acted like a star. For example, when Francis Ford Coppola came in 2002, he was absolutely wonderful. He was just one of the group. He never acted as if he were important. Never questioned why he had been invited.

Practicality is one of the most important attitudes when creating a film festival. If we showed a film, we intended it to be a memorable screening under the best circumstances. We wanted to represent the original work of filmmakers in the best way possible so that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I remember that second year Michael Powell stated what has been frequently stated since: "It was as if I was seeing my own film for the first time." That's a specific experience the Midnight Sun Film Festival provides.

Guillén: When is the Midnight Sun Film Festival held?

Von Bagh: It's always in mid-June 12-16. The 22nd of June is the Scandanavian mid-Summer and the festival is one week before that.

Guillén: The sense I'm getting when folks speak about "destination film festivals" is that these are events precisely meant to entice cinephiles to travel far for specific programming. With regard to the Midnight Sun Film Festival, it sounds as if there's an element of the pilgrimage involved. Cinephiles travel to a festival where films will be devotedly dealt with at depth. There's a deep motivation at work.

Von Bagh: With, perhaps, one added nuance. I don't think you could call the Midnight Sun Film Festival audience a cinephilic audience. Of course they like cinema, that's why they come, but they're not as knowledgeable as cinephiles are. By contrast, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is a cinephilic paradise. All the leading cinephiles of the world gather there. But in Finland at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, the audience is composed more of young people who come from all parts of Finland and are curious. By being curious, and accumulating knowledge in front of our eyes, by being directly influenced by film, they are somehow the best audience you can have.

Guillén: The Bologna film festival, then, how long have you been with them? How did that opportunity come about?

Von Bagh: Quite surprisingly, at the end of 2000 I was asked by the founder and existing director of the festival Gian Luca Farinelli to take over the festival in 2001. He was feeling that he could no longer run the festival because he had been hired as the director of the cinematheque and film archive Cineteca Bologna. Cineteca Bologna and Il Cinema Ritrovato are, in effect, one and the same thing; and so Farinelli is my boss in a sense. He basically said, "You do it now." This was one of the most surprising developments of my life. I would never have imagined that I, as a foreigner, would end up being the director of one of the best film festivals in the world! I was always happy to attend and saw everything there and admired it very much. As a foreigner, there were immediately practical difficulties, including some resistance to my appointment, but not so much. It was actually through the encouragement of his colleagues at film archives in Portugal and Spain that I was offered the position. I had never done anything abroad and so, for me, I thought, "Why not do that?" I didn't for a moment think there would be any difficulty in running two film festivals. I would run a third festival if someone wanted me. I've been with Bologna for 13 years now.

Guillén: What are the dates of Il Cinema Ritrovato?

Von Bagh: It runs from the last days of June to early August, eight days.

Guillén: So these festivals are back to back?!

Von Bagh: Yes, back to back. Which has become more and more difficult for me. In the last few years there has only been one day between the Midnight Sun Film Festival and Il Cinema Ritrovato, so it's almost inhumanly possible to recover from one festival to attend the next, let alone to switch the pathways of your brain because, as festivals, they are so different from each other. As we've already discussed, one of them is for cinephiles and the other is for the highest specialists of the world where you have to talk to them and satisfy their wishes to see their films. That's one of the reasons so many people come to the Midnight Sun Film Festival because there are so many diverse programs there and many films that no one has ever seen.

Guillén: Your criticism of the current film festival landscape is how so many of them have capsized into celebrity events where the spectacular dimension of a film festival is overemphasized.

Von Bagh: Very much. Not only the celebrity but that they are dedicated to paying attention only to known names. I would guess that remarkable films escape their attention all the time. They don't access them. They don't even look at them. A thousand films come out every year and no one pays attention to the unknown filmmakers so it's possible to say that the best film of the year might not make it to such a film festival at all.

Guillén: Recently, in a conversation with Thomas Elsaesser, he explained to me that the European film festival landscape was created at the time in conscious defiance or opposition to Hollywood's hegemony and that for many years, at least a couple of decades, these European film festivals were able to advocate cinema under the aegis of national cinemas with an auteurial emphasis. But somehow that has been co-opted again by the same commercial forces that they were initially resisting.

Von Bagh: He's absolutely right. Something ghostly happened along the years. Somehow European film festivals have become more Hollywood than Hollywood itself, not only with the ceremonies which imitate Hollywood, but also the concentration on best-selling names, and attracting audiences with stars who they pay to attend.

I am ambivalent about the Cannes Film Festival. I attended Cannes three times in a row in the early '70s when it was still relatively easy to get around. Even then I didn't much like it, and I would disappear after just a few days, but then beginning in 1999 I served three times as a juror at Cannes, otherwise I wouldn't have gone. I served on the jury for Caméra d'Or, which is for first films, and the chairman was Michel Piccoli and I would say that is the best time I had at Cannes because he was such a great personality. Then I served on the FIPRESCI jury, which was the most anonymous because no one on the jury even had time to sit down to talk to each other. It was restless. Then suddenly in 2004 I received a telephone call from Thierry Fremaux inviting me to be part of the Grand Jury. What surprises me now in retrospect is that I seem to have been the only film critic or film historian in the last 20 years who has been on the Grand Jury, which shows how wrong everything is because there should always be at least one film critic or film historian on the jury. They act as if we don't have the knowledge. Instead, they invite stars who aren't knowledgeable about film. The year I was there the jury was run by Quentin Tarantino. What was clearly lacking on the jury was a knowledge of film. That's when I finished with Cannes.

What is good about Cannes is that there is a cinephilic heart behind the machinations. That means they focus on innovation and—with regard to the names—there are not just 20 names from world cinema, but 50 names from world cinema, which means that when someone like Chantal Akerman or Jean-Marie Straub or Manoel de Oliveira make a new film, Cannes will promote them by giving their film good placement. Also, the most interesting new cinema is provided necessary help by Cannes. That is the best that I can say about the Cannes Film Festival.

Guillén: It's my understanding that—in reaction to the fact that the perspective or the vision of European film culture has capsized under the weight of international commercial interests—some film festivals have consciously matured into archival film festivals. Either that or strongly enunciating within their programs restored films from the archives. As you know, here in San Francisco we have the Silent Film Festival, which has turned into one of the best in the world....

Von Bagh: It is very remarkable.

Guillén: ...and we have Noir City, which focuses on Hollywood product but with a focus on public engagement with film preservation. Il Cinema Ritrovato clearly falls within this domain.

Von Bagh: That is the whole point of that festival. There are not other attractors at all. It's totally about rare, seldom seen films that have all but disappeared, restored films and so forth. With the silent cinema, they have a multitude of films that you wouldn't see anywhere else. It's simply the best place to find remarkably interesting old films.

Guillén: It strikes me that the reason that commercial forces could co-opt cinema is because audiences have let them. Is that because, as audiences, we've been colonized by commercial desires? Have we been taught to want only so much out of cinema? And how can festival progammers generate a film festival culture that teaches audiences, and guides them, not only to deeper historical connections to cinema, but to present and relevant connections to cinema?

Von Bagh: I would simply say that film festivals are absolutely free to do better than whatever they do nowadays. They are hiding behind the mask of audience opinion. It's a pretense. First, the audience is not as stupid as they think they are. Besides, it's not about that at all. It's not about whether the audience is stupid or not. At Il Cinema Ritrovato we can freely show anything of real rarity and we will have a full house. Audiences can trust us as programmers, and for me that's the most gratifying thing to see during a festival is when the audience sees something rare.

Someone in the audience might be at their very first film festival, but will still take almost anything. The point is film festivals are a place where you can get audiences. That's somehow alarming. The film culture that ought to be—and used to be—in the network of commercial cinemas, which had repertory theaters that would show films from 20-30 years back, has disappeared completely in Finland. It's impossible for Vertigo or a Preston Sturgess or a Humphrey Bogart film to come to a local theater. It doesn't happen anymore, even though such was the case just 25 years ago. Audiences, who have come to expect mediocre films at commercial theaters, attend a film festival and—within the frame of the festival—will accept any program you're proposing. As a programmer, then you can take considerable risks. At the Midnight Sun Film Festival, all we have to do is advertise that we are showing a film that has not been screened at a commercial theater in 25 years and the house is full.

Guillén: When the European film festival culture started to thrive, the concept of the national cinema became an important tool by which to promote perhaps the most artistic endeavors from each country. However, in our contemporary moment, with production expenses for film becoming exorbitant, there's more international financing going on. That makes the definition of a national cinema slippery. Can you speak to that?

Von Bagh: It's been a problem for quite some years now. And I'm always trying to avoid the dialectic that the more national you are with a film, the more local and truthful to a particular reality, the more universal you get. There was this saying in the '60s and '70s among the Anglo-Saxon film festivals that many of these films situated themselves "mid-Atlantic", meaning their audience was indeterminate; that the films were created for abstract international audiences. This is unfortunate for world cinema because it means local films will disappear. And even remarkable filmmakers will make films that don't situate themselves anywhere.

Roman Polanski was great when he was doing Chinatown in Los Angeles, Repulsion in London, not to speak of his early Polish films. But now his films in a way seem to spread everywhere; they don't have any characteristics of film.

Guillén: You say you're trying to avoid the dialectic that the local can lead to the universal?

Von Bagh: Exactly. My own modest films are very local. For me, it's interesting to think of my youth and my school time in northern Finland. What will happen to those films? For the first time, my films move around in retrospectives in Europe and so on. What will happen to these films that are limited to my childhood, my young age, that town, and what happened there? Somehow I'm hopeful that my films will become something that everyone will understand. I didn't compromise. I didn't remove my films from their surroundings.

Guillén: The compromise taken to make something seemingly international strikes me as a colonial mindset.

Von Bagh: That is a beautiful definition. That's quite thoughtful. It is colonialization. But it's happening in the big countries as well. It's more visible and obvious in the case of some Costa Rican director, but is less obvious with a United States-based director.

Guillén: You've been a programmer for such a long time, do you see a distinction between programming and curating?

Von Bagh: I've never thought of any difference between them because I was sometimes on both sides. Every day I learn the same thing somehow. But I feel the pressure of being the head of a film festival. Once, Edith Kramer and I were having some coffee after an interview and she remembered seeing me at the festival in Bologna sitting in the movies all the time. Edith said, "That's it." That was her policy also. It's a natural instinct. How would you know what's happening in the audience if you don't sit and watch films with them? Then you know your next step after that. I'm always sitting with the audience. That's my way to present. I mentioned this a little earlier, but you can articulate a film showing in a film festival in a way that the screening can be as memorable as a live performance of music or theater.

Guillén: As someone who has seen film culture evolve over the past few decades, any thoughts on the so-called digital revolution?

Von Bagh: I'm extremely pessimistic about that. No one would listen to my complaints. I refuse to see a film like Sunset Boulevard or Singing in the Rain on digital. For me, when it loses its own material truth, it's not the same thing anymore. I think it's tragic.

BOOK EXCERPT—HUCKLEBERRY: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes From Our Kitchen

"Everything in generosity" is the motto of Zoe Nathan, the big-hearted baker behind Santa Monica's favorite neighborhood bakery and breakfast spot, Huckleberry Bakery & Café. This irresistible cookbook collects more than 115 recipes and more than 150 color photographs, including how-to sequences for mastering basics such as flaky dough and lining a cake pan. Huckleberry's recipes span from sweet (rustic cakes, muffins, and scones) to savory (hot cereals, biscuits, and quiche). True to the healthful spirit of Los Angeles, these recipes feature whole-grain flours, sesame and flax seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables, natural sugars, and gluten-free and vegan options—and they always lead with deliciousness. For bakers and all-day brunchers, Huckleberry will become the cookbook to reach for whenever the craving for big flavor strikes.

Reprinted with permission from Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets and Recipes From Our Kitchen by Zoe Nathan (with Josh Loeb and Laurel Almerinda), © 2014. Published by Chronicle Books. Photography © 2014 by Matt Armendariz. Support your local independent bookstore, or purchase Huckleberry at IndieBound or Amazon.

The Evening Class has chosen the following three recipes to share with our readership.

Brown Rice Quinoa Pancakes
(Makes about 15 pancakes)

Occasionally I make something I love so much that I literally want to eat it every day, and that's how I feel about these. I like them as straightforward pancakes cooked on a griddle, but they're also really good as a large baked pancake. Pour all the batter into a buttered cast-iron skillet, bake at 450°F / 230°C for about 15 minutes, and serve immediately straight from the skillet slathered with butter and maple syrup. It's a fun way to eat a pancake with a group. These should be your go-to breakfast anytime you have leftover rice. And if you're not up for cooking quinoa, you can always use all brown rice, but I will say if you choose to use just quinoa, the flavor can be a little overpowering. It is mandatory to serve these with maple syrup, but, honestly, you don't even need butter these pancakes are so good.

½ cup/60 g whole-wheat flour
5 tbsp/50 g cornmeal
2 tbsp rolled oats
1 tbsp flax seed meal or wheat germ
2 tsp chia seeds or poppy seeds
1 tbsp millet
2 tbsp brown sugar
1½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
2 cups/480 ml buttermilk
½ cup/110 g unsalted butter, melted
3 eggs
1¼ cups/200 g cooked brown or wild rice
½ cup/100 g cooked quinoa

1. Put the whole-wheat flour, cornmeal, rolled oats, flax seed meal, chia seeds, millet, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Add the buttermilk, melted butter, and eggs and whisk to combine. Stir in the rice and quinoa.

2. About 5 minutes before you're ready to make the pancakes, pre-heat a greased griddle or large skillet over medium-high heat; the griddle is ready when a few droplets of water sizzle and dance across the surface. But once heated, lower the heat to medium to prevent burning.

3. Drop ⅓ cup/80 ml of batter onto the hot griddle. When bubbles set on the surface of the pancake and the bottom is golden, flip and cook for about 1 minute longer. Serve immediately, while hot.

These are best the moment they leave the griddle.

Bacon Cheddar Muffins
(Makes 15 muffins)

Please play with this recipe. Add and subtract to your heart's content. Don't eat meat? Add additional cheese and herbs for super-cheesy herby muffins. No rye flour in the pantry? Substitute another flour, like whole-wheat, buckwheat, or, if you must, more all-purpose flour. Black pepper is not my thing but Laurel is obsessed. She always adds a healthy dose to these. Ham instead of bacon? Do it. Goat cheese? Why not? Like I said, play!

Browning the tops of these before they overbake inside is the key to success. So you may want to bake one muffin pan at a time, right at the top of your oven. Feel free to ride your oven dial and go hotter or cooler to control the browning, but just remember that color is flavor, so you want these pretty dark.

6 tbsp/85 g unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
2 tbsp sugar
1½ tsp kosher salt
3 eggs
¾ cup/100 g all-purpose flour
¾ cup/120 g cornmeal
6 tbsp/40 g rye flour
1½ tbsp baking powder
½ cup + 1 tbsp/135 ml canola oil
3 tbsp + 2 tsp/55 ml maple syrup
1 cup + 2 tbsp/175 ml buttermilk
½ cup/70 g diced Cheddar (cut into 1-in/2.5-cm cubes), plus ¼ cup/30 g grated Cheddar
6 tbsp/40 g grated Parmesan
11 slices cooked bacon, coarsely chopped, plus 1½ tbsp bacon fat, cooled
¼ cup/10 g fresh chives, parsley, or a combo, finely chopped
Chopped rosemary for garnishing

1. Position a rack near the top of your oven and preheat to 400°F/ 200°C. Line two 12-cup muffin pans with 15 paper liners, spacing them evenly between the two pans.

2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, and salt for 1 to 2 minutes until nice and fluffy. Incorporate the eggs slowly, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the all-purpose flour, cornmeal, rye flour, and baking powder and mix until incorporated. Add the canola oil, maple syrup, and buttermilk. Scrape the mixer bowl well, making sure everything is well incorporated. Add the diced Cheddar, 4 tbsp/25 g of the Parmesan, the bacon, and chives. Mix just until dispersed, folding by hand to be sure.

3. Fill the muffin cups to the very top.

4. In a small bowl toss the grated Cheddar with the remaining 2 tbsp Parmesan and sprinkle evenly over the muffins. Bake for about 15 minutes, until nicely browned but not overbaked inside. Garnish with chopped rosemary.

5. These are best eaten the day they're made.

Fresh Corn Cornbread
(Makes sixteen 2-in/5-cm squares)

This is your old-fashioned cornbread made insanely moist and delicious. It is the opposite of dry, and can really stand on its own without needing to be slathered with butter. This recipe is wildly versatile. Use fresh corn if you can; if it's not in season, you don't need it. For a fun jalapeño Cheddar version, increase the salt to 2 tsp, omit the honey, add ½ cup/120 g grated Cheddar, 2 jalapeños, finely chopped, and 2 tbsp chopped parsley. Take it any direction you please. The honey glaze is optional; if you go in a more savory direction, I would omit it. If you are making this cornbread for use in our Cornbread Pudding (page 164), omit the fresh corn and reduce the sugar to 6 tbsp/60 g.


6 tbsp/85 g unsalted butter
½ cup + 1 tbsp/110 g sugar
1¾ tsp kosher salt
4 eggs
1 cup/160 g cornmeal
¾ cup + 2 tbsp/100 g all-purpose flour
¼ cup/30 g whole-wheat flour
1 tbsp + 1 tsp baking powder
½ cup/120 ml whole milk
1 cup/240 ml buttermilk
¾ cup/180 ml canola oil
2 tbsp honey, plus ¼ cup/85 g for glazing (optional)
1½ cups/365 g fresh corn kernels (about 2 cobs; optional)

1. Preheat your oven to 350°F/180°C and grease an 8-by-8-in/20-by-20 cm pan.

2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, and salt on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Incorporate the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Be sure to scrape the sides of the bowl well. Pause mixing and add the cornmeal, all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, and baking powder.

3. With the mixer on low speed, pour in the milk, buttermilk, canola oil, and 2 tbsp honey and mix. This is a very loose batter. Small lumps of butter are no problem, but avoid any lumps of flour. If you see them, mix a little longer or work them out with your fingers.

4. Fold in the corn, if in season; if not, omit.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Do not overbake!

6. If you are choosing to glaze, slightly warm the ¼ cup/85 g honey in a small saucepan and lightly brush the top of the warm cake. This is best served the day it's made but keeps, wrapped well, at room temperature, for up to 2 days.

Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb are the wife-and-husband team who own and operate Huckleberry Bakery & Café. They fell in love while working together at their nearby restaurant Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen; they also own and operate Milo & Olive and Sweet Rose Creamery. They live with their two awesome kids in Santa Monica, California.

Laurel Almerinda has worked side by side with Zoe for years at Huckleberry, and now runs day-to-day pastry operations. Together Laurel and Zoe have created countless items, learned from each other, and grown in ways they never could have imagined. Laurel lives in Venice, California, with her husband, Ethan Pines.

Matt Armendariz is a celebrated food and lifestyle photographer based in Los Angeles, California.

Friday, September 19, 2014

ON THE WIRE: The Evening Class Interview With Linda Williams

From the back cover of On The Wire (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2014): "Many television critics, legions of fans, even the president of the United States, have cited The Wire as the best television series ever. In this sophisticated examination of the HBO serial drama that aired from 2002 until 2008, Linda Williams, a leading film scholar and authority on the interplay between film, melodrama, and issues of race, suggests what exactly it is that makes The Wire so good. She argues that while the series is a powerful exploration of urban dysfunction and institutional failure, its narrative power derives from its genre. The Wire is popular melodrama, not Greek tragedy, as critics and the series creator David Simon have claimed. Entertaining, addictive, funny, and despairing all at once, it is a serial melodrama grounded in observation of Baltimore's people and institutions: of cops and criminals, schools and blue-collar labor, local government and local journalism. The Wire transforms close observation into an unparalleled melodrama by juxtaposing the good and evil of individuals with the good and evil of institutions."

Linda Williams is Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Screening Sex and Porn Studies, both also published by Duke University Press; Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson; Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film; and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." In 2013, Williams received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

Linda Williams' introduction to On The Wire is used with permission of Duke University Press. Purchase On The Wire by supporting your local bookstore, or buy the book through Amazon.com. My thanks to Laura Sell at Duke University Press for setting up my interview with Linda Williams.

 * * *

Michael Guillén: In your introduction to On The Wire, you explain that you got into watching The Wire when you were laid up in bed in the summer and fall of 2007. How did you then go about structuring your study? Did you watch the series several times? How did you decide which episodes would best present your themes?

Linda Williams: It was harder than anything I'd ever done because we're talking about more than 60 hours of viewing time. I found that daunting. I simply watched The Wire the way anybody watches it, though I didn't watch it on a weekly basis—somebody had given me what were in effect bootleg copies of the first three seasons—so I was able to watch it every night and I did. It was the wonderful thing that I would give myself every night. I would go to bed at 7:00 and I would watch an hour of The Wire and then go to sleep exhausted.

It was overwhelming to me and also really intriguing: what was it that I had watched? What would I call it? A really long movie? That didn't quite seem right. I'd never encountered a serial that was as compelling. Serials never seemed timely to me, even though I'd grown up with serials like Flash Gordon.

My initial thought was, "Wow. What did I just see? That's amazing." Then I needed to teach an honors seminar with a relatively small class of only about 15 students so I could experiment, which is a rarity at a large public university. I said, "Well, all right, what if I were to teach a course on The Wire?" Then, as a group, the class and I could try to figure out what we were watching. But even there I had the problem of how to screen it? So, I would give long screening sessions every week of three to four hours; but, that still wasn't quite long enough to see it all. Besides which, I didn't want to just re-experience seeing it all over again—although, ultimately, that is what I did—but, I wanted to be able to organize it a little bit for students and help them through the viewing even though I was not really a great guide at that point because I didn't know much; I didn't know enough.

That first class that I taught was probably pretty bad. But one of the devices that I used in order to decide who would be in the class—because I couldn't take everyone who wanted to be in it—was to give them a quiz about the first season. I expected them to have seen the first season. The quiz had simple questions like "who was Omar?" or "what word do detectives Moreland and McNulty exchange in episode four of season one?" Questions like that. Then I could weed out people who didn't already care or hadn't already immersed themselves in the first season. I basically decided not to show the first season and expected the students to know it. I don't particularly like the second season, although I showed some highlights from it. Basically, then, I had three more seasons to show them. I felt a bit guilty about that. I kept changing my mind. At first, I was going to only give them flat summaries of certain things but then I realized they had to see more. I was bad at it because I didn't know how to handle a series that big and then, of course, there was the necessity of having to compare other kinds of serial television narratives.  So the first time I taught The Wire, I learned a great deal from the students who were, most of them, real fans, if not absolutely brilliant analysts. They were really into it. They knew it and they had more familiarity with television than I did because I, frankly, had not watched much television.

Then the second time I taught it, I did it in a large lecture class and I had it down. I knew which episodes I wanted them to see and I would analyze them and talk about them. It was in that process of trying to organize what it was—it would actually be interesting for me to go back and look at the syllabus of that class—that I began to think about television seriality as an important thing to talk about. I began to think about the rhythm of a series like The Wire and to count the beats, which was important to me. Somewhere in the book I argue that there is a telling rhythm to television that is different from movies. That rhythm is created by commercials. And it's a rhythm that doesn't quite trust the attention span of viewers. Even in a series like The Wire, if you take the commercials out—the commercials often interrupt moments so you get a climax before a commercial—that is the rhythm of television. Even when the commercials aren't there, you can tell that they should be there; that they're meant to be there. So I started counting the beats and rhythmically figuring it out and then I thought, "Well, how did this come to be? How did David Simon come to write this?" That was a rather natural process of reading his newspaper writing and reading his long journalism. That became important. Gradually I began to get chapters.

Then for me there was this huge question that everybody who talks about The Wire talks about its authenticity, its realism, its quality of being a visual novel like the 19th century realist novel and I just felt that was wrong because of earlier work that I've done with melodrama. That became a major thesis of a couple of the chapters, which allowed me to explore the tragic elements of The Wire, which are definitely there, but then pursue the series' more melodramatic qualities. And I don't mean "melodramatic" as a pejorative term.

Guillén: No, in fact, you've given the term a resuscitated definition. I had envisioned that maybe in your office you set up a huge evidence board with lines connecting names and photos.

Williams: [Laughs.] No, no, no.

Guillén: I didn't quite know how a person could have culled out and connected such subtle themes from so many various episodes, so I thank you for all that associative research. Let's approach some of the terms you've used in your study. One of the terms that has intrigued me in recent years is the concept of the "spatial imaginary." I can't profess to understand it fully or that I have explored it fully—you've certainly inspired me to explore it more fully—but can you give my readers a sense of what is a spatial imaginary and how you have applied it as a racial perspective on The Wire?

Artist: Tim Doyle
Williams: Geography is a discipline that is not just about maps. It's a discipline that has to do with how people and space interact, especially urban spaces. The idea of space has gained a greater prominence in thinking about the determination of human action within space and, of course, time. Space and time are the two components of life, you might say. In trying to understand and get a handle on what The Wire was, I glommed on to a term that I found in ethnography. Ethnographers are the people who go to certain places—it might be Papua New Guinea—and they spend a long enough time to understand not just the language but the rituals, how people live, and why they live that way. It struck me that there is an ethnographic quality to The Wire with the main difference being that it's not about that white man going to the jungle to understand the natives. In their earlier work, Simon and his co-writer Ed Burns, literally hung out on the space of the corners (The Corner), or hung out with the cops in police cars (Homicide: Life on the Streets). They were doing an ethnographic study of what typically happens on the corner with the police and they were able to do that because they stayed there for a year. They tried to understand what was happening, how people lived, and what the economy was. I could understand that their long form journalism was really a kind of ethnography because they were sticking with it long enough for it to become ethnography.

But I glommed on to the term "ethnographic imaginary" first by reading ethnography and realizing that ethnography always has a problem. It goes to a particular street corner, let's say, and it tries to understand what's happening; but, how can it fully understand what's happening if it doesn't understand the larger world in which that economy of the corner functions? With drugs and street corner stores and all the things that go with it: poverty, etc? You end up attributing a single-sited ethnography to something that is absent. Let's call it the system. And let's say it's capitalism in our society or—what do people like to call it?—neoliberal capitalism.

Artist: Tim Doyle
One ethnographer who interested me, George Marcus, made the argument that you always have "the fiction of the whole." If it was a Marxist analysis, you would have the idea of the abandonment of capitalism as "the fiction of the whole" that determines everything. The ethnography is always about that single space, but ethnographers dream of looking first at one space and then the adjacent space to see how all these different spaces fit together. That is an ethnographic imaginary that really can't be achieved by ethnographers because they just don't have the time to go to all these places.

Once you get this idea of "the fiction of the whole", and the ethnographic imaginary, then you realize that if you move into fiction it's possible to see how all the singular sites work together as a system. That's what initially interested me, but then I thought, "Well, of course, these specific sites are racialized, they're in Baltimore, and many are in inner cities, not entirely but predominantly spaces of especially black men who do not have jobs, who are hustling enough for drugs, or whatever. I began to think that maybe "the fiction of the whole" could be a useful term.

I'm critical of the way in which one critic, George Lipsitz, exchanges the terms racial and spatial. It's one way of accounting for what The Wire accomplishes as a fictional, melodramatic serial. Because the series goes on for so long and because it encompasses so many different spaces, viewers begin to get a notion of the whole. You can't get that notion of the whole without it being fictional but the fiction is related to the ethnography because Simon and his colleagues know that place. Certainly they know the police. Certainly they know the corners. And then they begin to expand to the schools and to the media. Certainly Simon knows the media. He knows the newspapers. Simon built through an ethnographic knowledge of specific spaces an ethnographic imaginary that is, in fact, fiction but which turns out to give more of the sense of the interactions of a whole than I had ever seen! And I've read Balzac! I know how these things work. I needed a vocabulary to talk about what was happening uniquely in this work.

Guillén: Which is precisely what you've achieved.

Williams: But I do think it's important to recognize it as a fiction. The language of The Wire is something that, the more you immerse yourself in it, the more you understand, which is why I don't like the subtitles because then you don't rely upon yourself to learn. A lot of that language is made up. Slang changes so fast. My guess is that nobody speaks that way—maybe they say, "You feel me?"—but nobody speaks exactly that same way today in Baltimore.

Guillén: Once you decided upon the structure, which you've laid out for me, did you approach Simon? Did you run your thoughts by him? Have you two had any interaction?

Artist: Tim Doyle
Williams: Yes, we have, but no. Some people might have approached him for an interview but there are a million interviews with David Simon. And I've read a lot of them. I think I know what he likes to say. I decided—and I guess it's my prerogative—that if I just listen to what Simon says about his work, he will say it is true, authentic, novelistic, and will also say it is Greek tragedy. I think he says Greek tragedy because he consciously thinks about Greek tragedy—there's references to the Gods and there's even that moment in Season Two when the union leader is found in the harbor, is cranked out of the water, and everybody forms a circle; it's consciously staged the way a Greek tragedy would have been staged.

If you just follow what Simon says, you end up interpreting The Wire as he wants it to be seen, which is simply: truth. In a way, this does a disservice to the form, the structure, and the power of what has been achieved in The Wire. I wanted to say yes, it's trying to be tragedy, but we don't have Oedipuses today, we don't have King Lears. These are great figures; great human beings who fall. And that's all you get in tragedy, is the fall. And then the fatedness of the fall.  It seems to me there's this other force that's operating in The Wire and it's a force that I think most of us respond to in our day and age, which is to say what's wrong and to show how people suffer through the lack of social justice, and that we want to fix it. We want it to be put right. That's the hopefulness of melodrama, which is often disappointed. But it's not a tragic fall. It's not a preordained fall.

So, no, I did not want to talk to David Simon. I wanted to, with my students, enter into an interpretation of what we thought it was. I didn't want to have his intentions articulated once more. I was more interested in a deep reading. But I also got in trouble with Simon. He threatened to sue the press. And I did have to change a few things [she laughs] because he's a feisty kind of man. But what I changed is not important to me, to my reading of The Wire, and had to do with facts about his journalistic career.

Guillén: You've talked about The Wire's televisual elements, its seriality, and you've distinguished between melodrama and tragedy, so now I'd like to approach your concept of "the buffer host"—so important to Simon's previous effort The Corner—but all but eliminated in The Wire.

Williams: Novels have narrators and narrators can sometimes be present in the work. But sometimes the narrator is not a presence and simply says what's happening. What I discovered in Simon's journalism, in his long form and his short form journalism, was a certain tendency for that narrator to be present, and for there to be a strong narrative voice. That narrative voice is, naturally, the voice of a white, middle class man. In reviewing his journalism, I talk about an essay he wrote on metal scavengers for the Baltimore Sun wherein he responded to metal scavengers industriously pulling every piece of copper or metal out of a house even before it's built in order to sell it to get a fix. He writes, "The ants are here; the picnic is us." When you do that, when you use "us", it creates us vs. them, the ants. That voice is the middle class voice disturbed that we are being eaten by these ants. There's nothing wrong with it. It's nice phrasing. But the work of a buffer is going on there. We don't just dramatically get into what the ants are doing. Simon's voice is there to distinguish between us and them.

I felt that in the creation of the dramatized version of The Corner, where actors are playing the real people who are chronicled in The Corner, that the insertion of Charles Dutton at the beginning and at various points was very much to create someone who could buffer us from the raw encounter with the addict who will do anything to get a fix, for example. The fact that Dutton is black and from Baltimore was an attempt I think by the producers of the show—I don't believe this is something that Simon actually wanted—to protect viewers from that raw encounter by creating this once-addict once-street corner man who is no longer that but who is black so you get rid of some of the paternalism of the white buffer of Simon's voice. But there's still a problem in not trusting the viewer and not dramatically structuring what is going on in a way that you can just sort of see it happen. The progression into The Wire, where you do not have a host buffer, where you do not have the literal voice of David Simon, means to me that the drama—and I would say the melodrama—has achieved a state where it can do what it wants to do without using that voice. I applaud that.

Guillén: Can you speak at all to what it might have been in the culture, in the reception of the time, that allowed audiences to be ready for that?

Williams: That's a good question. Among other things, HBO itself had ventured into grittier topics with, say, The Sopranos, which preceded The Wire by a couple of years. The fact that cable television in general did not have the usual prohibitions on language and sex and violence that films had, at least with the ratings system. The fact that Simon's own journalism had preceded and maybe got some people ready.

Guillén: You've described The Wire as a little bit retro with its square screen format and the simplicity of its presentation and you introduce the topic of the allure technology has for law enforcement. The whole notion of "the wire" changes each season slightly adapted to each season's variant narrative. I'm wondering if we can bring this further into the present where there's currently so much discussion about the militarization of the police and the technology being provided them?

Williams: The Pentagon is giving it to them! But I don't actually mean to say that there's not some surveillance technique that's useful to the police. But it does strike me that in The Wire this obsessive search for the better and better technology, the envy that McNulty always has of the FBI man, is meant to be seen and certainly teaches the lesson to anyone open to it that we are too technologically dependent and that there's something about good old-fashioned face-to-face cop on the beat that we lose with the quest and the fetishization of the latest technology.

Guillén: In the compelling distinction you make between tragedy and melodrama, you liberate melodrama from the domestic center of the home and observe it at an institutional level. That made me wonder if, in turn, a nation could be a tragic entity?

Williams: In the common parlance I think that our nation has made tragic mistakes. The invasion of Iraq. It would have been so much better to have left it alone. Yes, you could say there's a tragic flaw in the American character. But I think it's maybe more instructive to say that we are caught up in a melodrama rather than a tragedy, because tragedy is now almost an anachronism to modern culture. Tragedy believes in Fate and the Gods. We believe we can change things.

The United States was adhering to a melodramatic script when it got attacked by al-Qaeda and then thought, "Oh, we have been harmed. We have been injured." There's a terrible flaw in melodrama in that it sanctifies whoever gets hurt, whoever is injured, and whoever is suffering but seems to undergo an alchemy and become—as a victim—automatically good. America had already done a lot of things wrong in Iraq, supported all the wrong people, but all of a sudden we were hurt and we became the victims and we had—in our eyes—the moral right to invade a country. Even though the people who probably brought down the Towers were not in that country. We could lie to ourselves about the weapons of mass destruction and lie to everybody else because we had that apparent moral upper hand. That's the phenomenon that I'm interested in. The phenomenon of injury and suffering which seems to give a certain moral rectitude.

Melodrama is an insidious tool, but it is the way we think. If somebody runs over me with a car, I will feel like a victim and I will play that victimhood to the hilt to try to get whatever reparation I can. We don't accept things like that. Whereas a tragic hero may scream to the Gods but what does Oedipus do? He blinds himself. He so agrees that he did such a wrong thing that he takes the punishment into his own hands. That's a tragic gesture.

Guillén: I don't speak French, but I loved a term you used—ressentiment. Is it safe to say it translates into English as resentment?

Williams: It translates into resentment, but I believe the term comes from Nietzsche and I believe he used it to talk about lesser people, not tragic people, not big heroic people, but lesser people who feel a resentment towards the greater people or the more powerful people. Neitzsche thought it was a terrible sign of his times that ressentiment was such an important feeling. It's a feeling of, "I am wronged. I deserve to get back." But, in fact, it's not coming out of the heroic sensibility of ancient times.

Guillén: Reading your book while watching movies has heightened my appreciation of the melodramatic strengths of those movies. For example, I recently watched Michaël R. Roskam's The Drop (2014), whose narrative protagonist is basically a bad guy, he's a murderer, and a little bit of a thug, who gets injured and becomes morally resentful, which recalled me to a statement you made that most action films are based on melodramatic formula.

Williams: They're all melodramas. We settled on domestic melodrama and soap opera as the definition of melodrama and we like to watch Douglas Sirk movies—I love them myself—but, before those movies, melodrama could encompass action. There are passive victims and active injured victims who get their revenge. Typically, it was the women who would suffer in the home and sacrifice, so we have Mildred Pierce and Stella Dallas and that whole tradition. The other side of it is the action hero who is injured, always, and who then becomes righteous. Bruce Willis is my favorite example but there are a million of them. I don't know why we call those "blockbuster action" movies, but they're premised on an old-fashioned kind of melodrama.

Guillén: Let's talk about some of the characters in The Wire. The one character you did not mention much in your study is Bunk, the character who most captured my imagination when I began watching the series. I thought Wendell Pierce's portrayal was magnificent. You didn't say much about Bunk in your book?

Williams: No, you're right. I have so many regrets about this book, which again had to with how to structure it. It didn't seem right to have a chapter about my favorite characters.

Guillén: For me, Bunk was the realistic voice of The Wire.

Williams: Yeah, and he turns out to be the morally correct voice in the end. There's a television critic by the name of Jeffrey Sconce who says that if you're a true fan of The Simpsons then you not only know Apu but you know the names of his eight children. I asked this to a class once: "If you are a true fan of The Wire, you not only know Bunk Moreland but you know the name of his wife." [Directly at me.] What's the name of his wife?

Guillén: Oh dear, I'm no good at pop quizzes. I don't remember.

Williams: Maureen, or Nadine, or something like that.

Guillén: Nadine sounds right, now that you mention it. Returning to our earlier discussion on the spatial imaginary, as a self-identified queer male I've been considering a queer spatial imaginary and have discovered quite a lot has already been written about that. With regard to The Wire, one of my first obvious attractions to the series was to its gay and lesbian characters, specifically Omar and Kima, and possibly Bubbles. At that time in 2002 I had yet to see queer characters like the ones enacted in The Wire. They maybe didn't reflect my personal queerness, but they reflected a competent queerness, an effective queerness, which inspired me. Can you speak at all to that?

Williams: I think you're right. As with race, the important thing with The Wire is that in a way it doesn't make a big thing about somebody being black, because that's really common, and it doesn't make a big thing about somebody being gay. Which is not to say that there isn't homophobia. Within the book I share some images that show a homophobic reaction to Omar. The Omar character is a rich character and everybody's favorite character, though not always, but often. Part of the reason is because he's a really tough gangster and yet he feels things and he expresses his feelings and he suffers and he mourns and he feels guilty and puts a cigarette out in his palm. He's somebody with very strong emotions and also a strong moral code. In a way he's different from the other characters because he's so good. Aside from the fact that he robs people, he doesn't want to kill them. And sometimes people just give him the drugs. Omar is exceptional and wonderful and I talk about how he overcomes that problem of the "magical Negro." Bubbles is an interesting case because many people don't think he's gay. Only one person has actually said that in print.

Guillén: But there's no question that he's within a homoerotic domain?

Williams: He has repetitive relationships with younger men in which he likes to be the wise man who teaches them. There's no sense that he's sleeping with these men but, yeah, there's something queer about him.

Guillén: You actually say that in your book, that Bubbles may not be gay but he might be queer. What do you mean by queer?

Williams: Queer is a term invented by the queer community that signals that it doesn't necessarily have to do with sexual practices. According to some gay queer activist you just have to think a little different and be a little different and you get to be queer. It's a more encompassing category. There are reasons to be just a little suspicious of it, but it's there.

Kima's interesting because she's one of the guys and wants to be one of the guys and proves herself as one of the guys. It is possible to use someone like Kima to argue that the whole series is insensitive to women. The Wire is really good on race, and it's really good on queer or gay identities, but where are the sympathetic women? That means that you would be counting Kima as a man. The same thing with Snoop. It would be hard to say that Snoop is a lesbian, but she also is a woman who wants to be a man, as Kima wants to be a man, in the social way that men are. So where are the women in The Wire? That leaves us only Rhonda Pearlman really. There aren't strong, interesting female characters, if you go along with the idea that Kima and Snoop are really like men.

Guillén: You suggest further in your book that's possibly due to the fear of associating melodrama with the feminine; the popular mode of the '50s.

Williams: When narrative television drama got to be so serial—it wasn't always serial; it used to be more episodic—but when it got to be so serial, then there was a little bit of a concern that it might be regarded as soap opera. That may be the reason to account for the insistent maleness of so many of the television dramas: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood.

Guillén: And why Orange Is the New Black....

Williams: ...is so refreshing!

Guillén: In trying to understand narrative issues of identity, the danger of fixing things into nouns has long irked me, instead of finding comfort in the flexibility of adjectives. In other words, instead of being a melodrama or a tragedy, it might be more useful to point out how a film has melodramatic or tragic elements. As a professor of rhetoric, can you say we are too hooked on the fixed quality of nouns?

Williams: Well, you have a point but I don't just want to use the word "melodramatic" first of all because that always is a term of disapproval, whereas melodrama once existed as a thing that people liked. "Don't be so melodramatic," we say. One of the things I'm trying to do is to rehabilitate the noun melodrama and to understand it a little more historically. If we understand it a little more historically, maybe we can see that its reputation goes up and down at different times and that we would not dare call the brand-new serial television that we're all watching melodramatic because that's a form of abuse. I'm saying, let's look at what melodrama is and has done and let's look at how it doesn't want to call itself that anymore. I want to reassert the noun.

Guillén: And you've done that well by posing the difference between melodrama as genre, which is how I think most people think of melodrama, and melodrama as mode. Can you speak to that?

Williams: In film studies this has been a real problem because we are avidly interested in the genres of cinema.

Guillén: And in recent years there's been a lot of talk about elevating genre.

Williams: Yes, and that's why David Simon insists The Wire is not a cop show. I think it is a cop show and a lot of other things. Why do we have to deny genre? Because it's low. When we think of melodrama as a genre, we actually lose the sense of genre, because I would say that science fiction, action, westerns, crime thrillers, almost all of those would have what I like to think of as the structure or the skeleton of melodrama. To say melodrama as a genre usually refers to just those women's films. Every now and then one gets made and we all cry but that's to ignore all the guy-cry movies that are very popular but never called melodrama because they're manly.

Guillén: So what do you mean by the "mode" of melodrama?

Williams: You wouldn't say that realism is a genre. Realism is a mode. Realism is a way of telling the story. My argument is that melodrama is a chameleon-like mode that often interacts with realism. But if the purpose of the story, if the way it makes you feel, is to watch it and right a wrong or fix an injustice or judge the fairness of something, then it's better to call it melodrama making use of realism and bringing into the realm of the representable things that typically have not been represented, like drug addicts.

Guillén: When The Wire came out in 2002, and I was watching it on HBO and had to wait each week for the next episode, I found it difficult to keep up with things.

Williams: By "keep up" you mean "hard to remember"?

Guillén: Yes, because there were so many characters, so many sites, so much going on. Then, towards the final seasons I gave up watching on HBO and waited for each subsequent season to be available on DVD, which I would then watch in batches of three or four episodes per disc. Now I binge. The availability to visually binge on a series helps me absorb its narrative traction. Any thoughts on the changes in viewer reception and their capacity to absorb what The Wire really has to say through binge viewing?

Williams: First of all, perhaps the history of serials can be instructive. It was in 1837 that Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers and—instead of publishing the novel—he published parts of it and people started buying it. Some of his novels were weekly installments and some of them were monthly installments. Sometimes they were in magazines and sometimes in penny installments; sometimes 20 installments once a month. And somehow people were holding all of that together. There were the bingers among them who would wait and collect all of the installments—but still the novel hadn't been published as a whole—and they would binge on the parts.

Guillén: Like some collectors do with graphic novels and comic books?

Williams: Yes. Bingeing has always been with us. The ability to binge is greater now with DVDs; or to, at least, binge on a season, if not the whole. Part of the problem with bingeing is—if you wait too long—you don't get to be part of the conversation that everybody might be having, although it's hard to know where and when that conversation is taking place. I don't know if you do much television criticism?

Guillén: A bit of short form commentary on social media, but I primarily just watch lots of television. I mainly write about film, but I'm getting tired of writing about movies because I'm finding the better stories are on television.

Williams: That's what's happening. But then when do you write about television? When you see a movie, you have something to say about it but when do you say something about a serial? Only when it's over? Or at the beginning? Or in the middle? It's a real issue.

Guillén: You've talked about melodrama having an impulse to right a wrong and you've shifted melodrama out of the personal realm into an institutional realm....

Williams: Well, it can be and, again, The Wire is the example.

Guillén: As one citizen to another, I'm troubled by the fact that—even though we know so much more now and are more articulate about what's going on and the pressures impacting our lives under neoliberal capitalism—we seem unable to do anything. Reading your book, I kept wishing everyone could take a class in melodrama to understand what they're doing (or not doing) and then maybe we would have a fighting chance. Can melodrama truly offer remedy to social ills?

Williams: No, it can't. I wrote this book because I thought The Wire was the best use of melodrama I'd ever seen, the most intelligent, equally dramatic and compelling, and yet socially relevant and engaged. We can see that the war on drugs is stupid. But I'm acutely aware that melodrama is not always on the side that I want it to be. I learned this lesson many years ago when I began teaching one of the most famous movies in American history and probably the film most responsible for making movies popular to large audiences, which was The Birth Of A Nation, which is....

Guillén: Hard to watch.

Williams: ...a powerful melodrama and not hard to watch if you just give yourself up to it and there you are rooting for the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the film. That's the power of melodrama. The Ku Klux Klan, as that story is told, was being terribly abused and injured by these former slaves who wanted to rape their women. The Klan had to ride to the rescue. Melodrama is neutral as far as position. You can have strong melodramas on the side of Ceaușescu, or all of the melodramas prevalent in Hitler's Germany. So it's not like melodrama is the answer.