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Daryl Lee: Caught Up In Crime

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Dr. Daryl Lee, Chair of the Department of French and Italian and crime film connoisseur, speaks about why we love watching crime films and what they can teach us. Dr. Lee emphasizes that a crime film, while explicitly about breaking the law, is often implicitly about something very different such as artistic expression, capitalism, or voyeurism, and he encourages us to look for these underlying messages in this week’s films.

Michalyn Steele: Criminal Justice, Redemption, and 16 Bars

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Professor of Law at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Michalyn Steele speaks about different theories driving the criminal justice system. Should we focus on punishment or rehabilitation? And how does state and federal funding fit? These are the kinds of questions that the film 16 Bars (2018) is directly interrogating by following a program where inmates participate in musical rehabilitation while serving time. Steele sees this film as extremely helpful for reorienting our view to see criminals as humans.

Scott Sanders: Insights into Human Trafficking in the Thai Fishing Industry

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Dr. Scott Sanders speaks about human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry, the very setting of Buoyancy (2019). The film is based on the true story of a fourteen year old Cambodian boy who is brought to work as a slave on a Thai fishing vessel. Sanders breaks down how and why people both traffic and are trafficked as well as what we can do to help stop these practices.

Doug Weatherford lecturing Winter 2019

Welcome new IC co-director Professor Doug Weatherford

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Prof. Doug Weatherford’s translation of the writing of author and filmmaker Juan Rulfo.

International Cinema welcomes Professor Doug Weatherford (Spanish and Portuguese) as a new co-director of the program beginning fall 2020! Professor Weatherford graduated from BYU with a BA in Spanish and the Pennsylvania State University with a PhD Latin American Literature. His research and teaching emphases include Latin American literature and film, with particular interest in Mexico at mid-Century (1920-1968). For example, Weatherford has published extensively on the connection of author Juan Rulfo to the Mexican film industry. Professor Weatherford’s expertise in Latin American cinema will benefit IC for years to come. Welcome, Doug!

Many thanks go to outgoing co-director Professor Chip Oscarson for his tireless work in building the program. We look forward to welcoming Chip back as a faculty speaker and guest on the podcast in the near future.
Dr Roger Mcfarlane lecturing on O Brother Where Art Thou? at BYU International Cinema

From Coens to Homer: Mythological Adaptation in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) advertises itself as an adaptation of The Odyssey. Dr. Roger Macfarlane (Department of Comparative Arts and Letters) is just as interested in exploring the ways in which the film does not line up with Homer’s epic poem as in the ways in which it does. 

But, before jumping into epic poetry at last week’s IC lecture, Macfarlane talked about another text that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is adapting: Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Sullivan’s Travels is one of the great comedies from the classical Hollywood period. It follows a director of second rate comedies who is trying to convince his producers to let him make a film of social importance. They claim that he doesn’t know suffering so Sullivan sets out on a journey to learn what life is really like outside of his protected, affluent bubble. The film he wants to make is titled, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Macfarlane pointed to one instance, besides the title, which serve as points of contact in the Coen Brothers’ film to Sturges’s: the cinema. In Sullivan’s Travels, one of the climactic scenes is of a group of prisoners brought into a church to watch a film. This image of prisoners entering a darkened theater is mirrored in the Coen Brothers’ film when a chain gang shuffles in to watch a movie in an actual theater. This visual match clues viewers into understanding O Brother, Where Art Thou? through the themes of Sullivan’s Travels—a film which Macfarlane highly recommended viewers also see this week at the International Cinema.

There are a few gimmes for reading O Brother, Where Art Thou? as an adaptation of The Odyssey. Firstly the character names overlap. George Clooney plays our main character named Ulysses Everett McGill has Odysseus’s Latin name, and the two characters are very similar. Penny Wharvey-McGill (Holly Hunter) also mirrors Penelope. Others diverge quite a bit though, such as Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel who does not fit with the Menelaus character in The Odyssey. John Goodman’s character wears an eyepatch and is very similar to the cyclops, Polyphemus, they are even maimed in similar ways with burning pieces of wood. The sirens are also a straightforward adaptation with singing women luring the men away from their quest and leading them to be killed. 

While many of these elements line up nicely, Macfarlane observed that the film also contains a number of less direct adaptations. Such as, “why is there a bust of Homer in the background of the ‘Pappy’ O’Daniel character introduction?” and “Who is the blind railroad man? … He matches Tiresias visually but not thematically.” 

One less obvious adaptation of Homer is the use of the song “Man of Constant Sorrow” sung by Ulysses and his pals in the film. The song’s title is a reference to Odysseus’s name, which is a pun on the verb in Greek meaning “to suffer” or “to cause suffering.” Additionally, during The Odyssey, Tiresias tells Odysseus that before he can find rest, he needs to carry an oar in land far enough to find a people who do not recognize its use. There he needs to establish a cult of Poseidon. Macfarlane read this instance as the referent for the music in the film generally, because the music is all from outside of Mississippi and more akin to the music of Appalachia.

Lastly, Macfarlane pointed to one of the most discussed aspects of the film, its digital color-grading, a process that has since become ubiquitous. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first feature film to be entirely, digitally color corrected. The use of digital filters turns an otherwise intensely green Mississippi into a dusty depression era setting steeped in images and ideas from the past. Macfarlane read this not only as a visual aspect of the film but as a type of adaptation as well. Homer likewise was dealing with the past when he wrote The Odyssey around 740 BC referring to events in the Troyan war that took place over four hundred years earlier in 1184 BC. Homer is writing an ancient tale and similarly the color correction of the film acts a method of distancing and mythologizing its narrative in a nostalgized past.

Hidden Families and Class Conflict in Bong’s Parasite

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“We often think of class conflict as a product of distance but in Bong’s films this sense of class conflict is a product of both distance and connection or closeness.” Dr. Marc Yamada (Department of Comparative Arts and Letters) addressed a full crowd eager to learn more about this year’s Academy.Award.winning film and Bong Joon-ho’s latest picture Parasite (2019). Yamada situated the film in what he called the “post-Crazy-Rich-Asians moment” (referring to the 2018 romantic comedy). That film, which was screened last semester at the International Cinema, focused solely on the glamour, style, and extreme wealth of a few in Asia. Other films look at the flip side of the coin, like the film that won the Palme d’Or the year previous to Parasite’s win, Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters (2018). Parasite has often been compared to Shoplifters not just because they were both the recipient of one of film industry’s biggest honors, but because they both explore themes of the economy, class, and the family. 

Yamada began by giving the background of Korea and Japan’s economic success over the last century. The rise of both was due largely to state sponsored capitalism. Their governments would pick out a few main companies to sponsor and make the centerpieces of the nations’ economies. In Japan these companies are called keiretsu, in Korea they are called chaebol. Some of these chaebol such as Samsung and Hyundai are well known even outside of the region. 

Because of the massive economic growth of these nations in such a rapid period, the structure of families changed in turn. Families today in Japan and Korea are characterized by the distant, salaryman father who provides everything for the family and a wife who does everything possible to help her husband continue to perform well at work while doing the same for their children and their schooling. Kids are supposed to work rigorously in school so that they too can become these kinds of effective workers when they grow up. The family then acts as an extension of the corporation, which is itself an extension of the state. Yamada said, “The idea of family as an extension of the corporation, or even the family as corporation, is really key in South Korean culture,” and pointed to the central role of the chaebol.

Yamada also noted the ways in which chaebol, while being owned and operated by a single family, will keep the different divisions separate from each other. Each works for the corporation but only works within their respective fields. Normative families follow suit and families members have become increasingly separated from each other in these two nations. This of course is true on a large scale but exceptions are sure to occur.

One such exception, and even a challenge to this normative state-extension family, is the central family in Shoplifters. What seems to be a fairly regular, poor family is revealed to be entirely self-constructed: the family members are not biologically related. Yamada read this organic family as a critique of the normative, top-down structure. 

Parasite in turn offers a critique of the ways in which chaebol have created an elite class within South Korea. Likewise one of Bong’s previous films, Snowpiercer (2013) depicts a post-apocalypse where all of humanity is stuck on one perpetually moving train. The train has become stratified according to class with the rich up front and the poor in the back. Despite the forced distance between them, the upper-class passengers require the lower-class passengers to work dehumanizing jobs in order to sustain their opulent lifestyle. It is the distance but also the proximity of members of the different classes that leads to the film’s conflict.

Parasite, Yamada suggests, is engaging in these themes of economy, family, and class. The film centers around two families, the wealthy Parks and the poor Kims. The families are separated by the differences in their houses, the houses’ placements in the city, as well as their respective lifestyles. However, they are interdependent. The Kims rely on the Parks for jobs and financial security while the Parks couldn’t sustain their way of life without the Kims as their workers. Their proximity is also emphasized in them both having incredibly common surnames and similar family structures as well (father, mother, older daughter, and younger son). Look for, Yamada suggested, ways in which proximity and distance is visually manifest in the film such as stairs, the interior design, and the architecture. It is often in these locations that Bong’s unique tone of comedy and drama plays out. One thing Yamada noted near the end of his lecture was how this mixture of comedy and drama can make many viewers uncomfortable. The violence of a comedy is often reversible, but in a drama or horror it is not. Bong’s violence, showcased near the end of the film, is a great example of how he can make something so sinister so funny and something so funny so sinister.

Cinema at the End of the Earth: Representing the Arctic

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The Arctic is not an “empty, uninhabited space upon the margins of civilization outside of time, outside of history, and outside of modernity,” according to Dr. Chip Oscarson (Department of Comparative Arts and Letters). This week’s films, as programmed by Oscarson in his position as co-director of the International Cinema, all center around representing the Arctic. Each film takes a different approach to the subject, which Oscarson explained in turn. First, he showed a series of maps of the world. The Arctic, he noted, is often absent or completely distorted on many map projections. Oscarson then showed a map where the north pole was at the very center with Moscow, Toronto, and Reykjavik on the periphery. Geographic definitions centered on Europe or the Americas misrepresent.

Another form of the Arctic’s misrepresentation comes from mathematical projections. These are often used by corporations and governments for information about possible scientific, industrial, or political strategies. These, like the map projections, do not offer holistic understandings of the region, with its great diversity of indigenous peoples, travelers, varied landscapes, and wildlife. Oscarson suggested that film can present another way of understanding the Arctic and that the films this week were chosen specifically to offer a few different approaches.

The Arctic has been of interest to filmmakers from the early days. One such example is of George Méliès’s The Conquest of the Pole (1912) in which a group of European explorers travel to the North and meet terrible, wild monsters that almost destroy them. Here the Arctic is used as a periphery or an untamable Other to Europe’s modernity. Another important early film is the pioneering documentary Nanook of the North (1922) shot on location in Northern Canada by Robert Flaherty. Although marketed as an ethnographic documentary, in some cases Flaherty actually had his actors reenact traditional Inuit practices for the camera, even when some of those practices had long since been abandoned suggesting how even documentary film can be as much a projection of certain ideas as a record of objectively exists. 

The four films about the Arctic showing this week each show a different dimension of the region and how we are connected to it. Genesis 2.0 (2018) is a documentary about hunting mammoth tusks in Siberia. The hunters defy their people’s traditional beliefs in excavating the remains that emerge as the climate warms and the permafrost melts in the hope of getting rich. Their discovery of an impeccably preserved baby mammoth quickly awakes the interests of scientists hoping to re-create the species, a la Jurassic Park (1993) and sends the documentary around the world into thorny questions about how humans are altering the geological history of the planet. 

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) is another interesting representation of the Arctic, although it was filmed in California, thousands of miles from the Pole. This slapstick comedy began production in the Sierra Nevadas, near Donner’s Pass, but after terrible working conditions and uncooperative weather they shot the rest of the film in the studio with tons of fake snow. As a film it thematizes (and satirizes) the modern cosmopolitan subject’s relationship with space, and in terms of its substitution of the studio, for the Sierra Nevadas, for the Klondike it is an example of what Mark Sandberg has termed “place promiscuity” in film.  

Ága (2018) is set in the Siberian Arctic where the film follows an indigenous family who have continued to live according to traditional customs. This film is directed by a Bulgarian who makes what Oscarson referred to as the “ethnographic camera.” This view focuses on how these people could survive in what seems like such a demanding climate, a project not unlike Nanook of the North, but this time with less manipulation. 

Finally, Arctic (2018) is a survival film following a downed pilot (Mads Mikkelsen) who acts out our fantasy of the perfect survivalist. Oscarson suggested that these survival films are evidence of our “trying to imagine how to live outside of our ability to specialize,” as the pilot must do every imaginable task to survive without any societal or economic support. 

What unites all these films together, beyond the icy settings, is their attempt to expand our perspectives, suggest Oscarson. Understanding the Arctic helps us to better understand ourselves and the ways in which we are connected to each other and to local and planetary systems.

Could it Happen Again? Geological Perspectives on Imprisonment at Utah’s Topaz Internment Camp

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“Could it happen again?” is the haunting question one must confront when studying the detainment and imprisonment of US citizens of Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II.  According to Dr. Brian Roberts (Department of English) introducing the documentary film And Then They Came for Us (2017), 110,000 citizens and residents of the United States were imprisoned in the 1940s without trial or due process simply for being ethnically Japanese. These people, two thirds of whom were born and raised in America, were legally detained according to the government at the time. Seventy eight years ago this week, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which established the “assembly” camps and filled them. 

One such camp, the Topaz Internment Camp, was located only about an hour and half from Provo just outside of Delta, Utah. Some have pointed out the parallel between these camps and those used by the Nazis, and while Roberts said that in many ways they are not analogous, the American interment camps nevertheless “bore a milder resemblance to the Nazi camps to the degree that these camps were set up by a government which overtly favored white people. And that was unabashedly using racial and ethnic background as a logic for rounding up scapegoats.” 

Many of the prisoners at Topaz, Roberts pointed out, found a deeper connection with the geological formations of the area than they did with their fellow US citizens who sought to profit from their detainment. The stark geology surrounding their new home came to play a major role in many of their lives. The arts and literature journal established by the prisoners printed an article expressing amazement at the fact that Topaz Camp was located on the ancient bed of Lake Bonneville. Many of the prisoners became interested in the shells and fossils that could be found in the soil around the camp. Shells of ten-thousand-year-old snails were used to create jewelry and ornaments; some of the prisoners saved these artworks and even decades later pronounced them to be some of their most precious possessions. Trilobite fossils, half a billion years old from the bed of the even more ancient Cambrian ocean, could also be found in certain places nearby and were used by some prisoners to make personal effects such as ink stones. One prisoner carved the words, “four hundred and eighty million years” into the hollow of his ink stone from which he would ink his brush for artistic calligraphy. 

The artistic creations and geologic interests of these prisoners have been praised as evidence of these people’s resilience. Roberts agreed that they were indeed resilient and should be praised, but warned that such a focus acknowledges the tacit approval by citizens of the United States exercising their racial prejudice by imprisoning their neighbors and fellow citizens. The prisoners, Roberts suggested, found more kinship, courage, and loyalty in the fossilized remnants of ancient aquatic invertebrates than they did in the people who shared their language, nationality, and culture. 

Since the end of the Japanese-American internment in the late 1940s, all three branches of the government have issued formal apologies for these actions and thoroughly condemned such unlawful behavior. While it was pronounced legal at the time, these camps have been recognized for how heinously they trampled the rights of citizens and human beings. 

“Could it happen again?” During Donald Trump’s campaign for president, he advocated for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and defended these remarks by saying, “Look at what FDR did many years ago and he’s one of the most respected presidents.” In his own words, an elected president of the United States has looked to a completely and utterly condemned, illegal practice as a blueprint for acting out his own religious discrimination. The answer to the question of “Could it happen again?” seems to be “Yes, but not if we stop it.” Roberts finished with this plea, “May we today and in the future find the courage to be better patriots than the invertebrate snails that comforted the prisoners at Topaz. To be more loyal to the rule of law than the trilobites that scuttled half-blind at the bottom of the Cambrian Ocean. May we be ethical enough that those who experience the brunt of prejudice today will not find their best companions in the mirthless laugh of geology, but in ethical solidarity with their fellow citizens and their fellow humans.”