Press Play presents Sight and Sound Film Poll: Critics' Picks, a series of video essays featuring prominent film critics on films they selected for Sight and Sound magazine's poll of the greatest films of all time. New videos will premiere each week until the poll results are announced later this summer.
The seventh video in this series is adapted (with the author's permission) from an essay by Nicole Brenez that appeared earlier this year in Sight & Sound, which was part of a series of articles proposing films for top ten consideration. Her selection of The Hour of the Furnaces by Argentina's Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino is one that, in my view, challenges a number of conventions that typify movie top ten lists. For starters, it may very well be the most important film to have ever been made in Latin America, a region that's long been neglected by the Sight & Sound Poll (unless you count Luis Buñuel as a Latin director).*
Brenez' endorsement also has a bit of intrigue in that it focuses exclusively on the 208 minute documentary's first part, Notes and Testimony on Neocolonialism, Violence and Liberation, ignoring the second part, which in Brenez' words "mainly consists of advocacy for the Argentinian politician Juan Péron and therefore does not concern us here." This year Sight & Sound instructed poll participants not to count multiple titles as a single work (i.e. The Godfather I and II, Dekalog); Brenez' essay provokes the question of whether half of a film can rank among the greatest (though unlike most films, in this instance there is a clear demarcation of parts forming a whole).
But perhaps most importantly, Brenez's argument makes a compelling case for the poll's consideration of the political film – as well as the politics of filmmaking. It's fair to say that, particularly with regard to greatest films lists, overtly political filmmaking has long endured a stigma as being inferior to films that focus more exclusively on cinema as art. But it's a false dichotomy, as this video hopes to illustrate; The Hour of the Furnaces is a dense work that weaves several modes of cinema into a multifaceted polemical discourse. It plays like the apotheosis of a rich film lineage traced through the likes of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens, Humphrey Jennings, Alain Resnais and many others.
Moreover, the film is driven by a revolutionary philosophy of filmmaking that, from today's perspective, seems ever more pertinent, if only because what it opposes seems ever more dominant. To my discredit, the video does not incorporate the passage in Brenez' essay specifically pertaining to the film's relationship to its filmmakers' seminal manifesto, "Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World." This landmark text lays a blueprint for cinema in the developing world, proposing an entirely new system for filmmaking and distribution that can truly serve the needs of a society seeking independence from external colonizing forces. It argues for a politically conscious, self-determining "Third Cinema" that can oppose the two prevailing cinemas that, Solanas and Getino argue, serve the forces of cultural and societal oppression: first, the Hollywood model of industrial filmmaking; and second, the auteur / arthouse cinema, which purports to provide an alternative to the first cinema, but amounts to a "safety valve," in Brenez' words.**
These days, it seems nearly impossible to conceive of movies beyond "mainstream" and "arthouse / alternative / independent", or to think of great cinema without summoning a rollcall of auteurs. Watching a film like Hour of the Furnaces – produced as a collective effort outside of a commercial or auteurist model, screened illegally within its home country, and made with a comprehensive, groundbreaking understanding of filmmaking's role in affecting the status quo – one starts to realize how so much of today's film culture has settled into a comfortable, marginalized space in relation to the rest of society. And yet, so much of the world described by Hour of the Furnaces still resembles ours. The film is a bracing reminder of how cinema can confront such a world head-on.
This is the second video I've produced with Nicole Brenez. Our first was on Boris Barnet's By the Bluest of Seas; as with that video, Nicole's words are voiced by another person. Here it is Nova Smith, doctoral candidate in cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago.
– Kevin B. Lee
*In the 2002 Sight & Sound Poll, only five Latin American films received more than one vote: Los Olvidados, The Exterminating Angel, and El by Buñuel (all from his Mexican period); and two films from Brazil, Black God White Devil by Glauber Rocha and Barren Lives by Nelson Pereira Dos Santos.
**Reading Solanas and Getino's essay, it occurred to me that auteurism and Facebook have something in common. Auteurism allows us to cozy up to a virtual, personalized experience of movies [movies as "personal visions"], as Facebook allows us to do so with the internet ["personal" interactions online]; in both instances, fantasies of personalization come at the risk of ignoring a more comprehensive, systemic view of the apparatus: its methods, aims, and outcomes in shaping our perceptions of reality and social order.
Nicole Brenez is professor of cinema studies at University of Paris 3/Sorbonne Nouvelle and a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France. She is a film historian, curator, and leading specialist of avant-garde cinema. Her books include “Cinéma d’avant-garde” (2007), “Abel Ferrara” (2007), and “Chantal Akerman” (2011). Brenez has also been curating the Cinémathèque Française’s avant-garde film sessions since 1996.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor Keyframe, and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.