Saturday 5 December 2020

Defending Cinephilia in the year of the Plague - Rod Bishop leads off the annual survey of 5 Cinephilic things from 2020

SOUTH PARK: THE PANDEMIC EDITION (Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Brian Graden, USA, 2020)


What follows is all Spoiler.


South Park’s marijuana dealer Randy Marsh has packaged his product into a “Pandemic Special”, including a complimentary Pandemic bong. 


Business is booming until he sees a news broadcast blaming Covid on a Wuhan bat. He is devastated. In flashback, we see Randy and Mickey Mouse on a business trip to Wuhan where they take turns having sex with a bat. 


A panicked Randy immediately calls Mickey, who is now running Disney:


What do you want Marsh?

Do you remember when we fucked that bat in Wuhan?

I fucked a lot of bats.

Well, I only fucked one. I remember I got really sick. This was all back in October.

Jesus Christ! You fucker! You started all this!

You told me to fuck the bat.

Didn’t you quarantine yourself after you got home?

Nobody knew anything about Covid when I fucked the bat...if my wife finds out I started the pandemic, she’s gonna be a total bitch about it!” 


Eric Cartman, that wonderfully misanthropic, overweight, foul-mouthed South Park kid is delighted by the Covid restrictions. His first appearance in this 45-minute special is a song-and-dance routine, chortling over the glories of social distancing.


He doesn’t have to meet and talk to his friends and he finds a way to effectively sabotage his Zoom school attendance.  Best of all is the 6-foot pole he uses like a lance to enforce his distance from others. It’s particularly effective on his mother.


To Cartman’s utter dismay, South Park Elementary is to reopen with an all-new teaching staff: the armed cops who have lost their jobs during the recent defunding of the police force.


The pupils are socially distanced behind individual screens but this doesn’t stop Cartman starting a fight with Kyle and in the chaos, the cops shoot a black student called Token.


The news media are announcing a pangolin from Wuhan as the new suspect in Covid transmission to humans. Randy Marsh and Mickey Mouse are horrified, they also had sex with a pangolin in China.


The pangolin is brought to the States for scientific research, but Randy steals it. Mickey threatens to kill Randy and turn his DNA over to the scientists who think the “foreign” DNA that is “up, inside” the pangolin might lead to a Covid cure. 


Inspired by this news, Randy starts mixing his semen with his marijuana and forces Jimbo, a hospitalized Covid patient, to smoke it. Next day, Jimbo has miraculously recovered, so Randy sets about ejaculating into all of his marijuana stash and selling it at Covid-like drive-throughs. 


Jimbo, however, has now grown a moustache identical to Randy’s and the hospital has filled up with patients, both male and female, who have all grown Randy moustaches.


Dr Anthony Fauci tells people to wear masks over their moustaches and the news media advise everyone to self-isolate at home and consume more of Randy’s marijuana Pandemic Special.


Back at the school, the cops are locking the students inside for a two-week quarantine and are claiming Token, the black student they shot, was Covid-infected:


STAN: “Um, we were there and Token was actually taken to the hospital because you guys shot him.


COP: “Yes, due to Covid. If it weren’t for Covid, all the previous teachers would have still been here, we wouldn’t have been in the class, and nobody would have got shot. Therefore, the young man is in the hospital due to Covid. It was Covid-related.


STAN: “That doesn’t make any sense.


Over at The White House, the President is refusing to do anything about fighting the virus because Mexicans and other minorities have higher death rates than whites.


The students stage a mass breakout from quarantine and in the finale the police are about to shoot them all when the President appears with a flamethrower and incinerates both the chief scientist and the pangolin.



IN MY BLOOD IT RUNS (Maya Newell, Australia, 2019)

Dujuan Hoosan is having a hard-time at school in Alice Springs. 

A bright and articulate 10-year-old Arrernte boy, Dujuan is reportedly rude to his teachers. He is certainly exquisitely bored, except during Arrernte-language classes. He runs away every day, putting himself in danger of foster care or youth detention and risking his family’s welfare payments.

Maya Newell’s ‘observational documentary’ contains two hard-to-believe scenes from Alice Springs school-life. 

The first is a teacher reading from The Australia Bookby Eve Pownall (first published in 1952): 

Listen carefully, this one isn’t a story or non-fiction, it’s information, it’s fact, it’s about the history of our country”. 

Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay and his voyage up the east coast is lauded and his planting of the English flag on an island at Cape York is celebrated as claiming “for the English country the whole of this new land”.

The kids are then told to use textas to mark important landmarks like Botany Bay, convicts and Arthur Phillip.

Later, Dujuan muses to himself: “The history that we’re told at home is in language and it’s about Aborigines. But the ones back at school, that was for white people.”

The second incident comes from another white teacher reading aloud from a book about the Dreamtime:

There was a Dreaming of fire and the colour of fire burned brightly in the mind of the Great Spirit.

She turns to the kids: “So they’re actually saying there is a Spirit. I’m not exactly sure how they do it, there’s a Spirit somewhere and in that Spirit, they have the Spirit of fire…

One boy interrupts: “Spirit is real, ay.”

The teacher ignores the interjection and continues: “For a long time the battle of the wind, the fire and the rain raged in the Dream and the Great Spirit liked the Dream, so the Dreaming continued.”

She turns to the kids again: “Can you understand thatI’m glad you can, because I find it a bit confusing about the Spirit and the Dreaming…We’ve just got to believe it.

Breathtaking in its ignorance and its patronage particularly as the class has many ten-year-old Indigenous children.

Newell immediately cuts to a sequence with Dujuan and the other children as they draw and talk among themselves without any white teachers around:

“What’s your Dreaming?”




“What’s your Dreaming?”


“White cockatoo?”



All Dujuan wants is his Indigenous identity, his land, his community, his family and his history. He just wants himself. But he’s stuck between the white colonialism so grossly on display in his school-life and the possibility of his truancy alternative – colonial-era incarceration and welfare punishment for his family.

There is a third astonishing sequence in this predominately restrained and understated documentary. It’s almost thrown away – an ABC news item read over a wide-shot of Alice Springs at dusk:

The Northern Territory’s Police Commissioner has revealed plans to send a unit of camouflaged, specialized police with military-grade weapons to control Alice Springs at night. And it’s part of the Australian government’s national counter-terrorism task force.

The announcement comes a week to the day since a Royal Commission delivered its report on youth detention and child protection systems in the Northern Territory”.

Although not included in this documentary, Dujuan, at 12-years-old, addressed the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in 2019. He is thought to be the youngest person to ever do so. Excerpts:

[In My Blood It Runs] was filmed when I was 10 years old. It shows what it feels like to be an Aboriginal kid in Australia and how we are treated every day…I want Australia to tell the truth that Aboriginal people were the first people who had the land…

…the film shows me working to learn Arrernte and about being Angangkere…which means I am a traditional healer. It is my job to look after my family with my healing powers…

…I feel strong when I am learning my culture from my Elders and my land…This is who I am and they don’t see me at School…I think schools should be run by Aboriginal people. Let our families choose what is best for us. Let us speak our languages in school…

…The film shows Aboriginal kids tortured in juvenile detention. I know a lot of kids who have been locked up. Police is cruel to kids like me. They treat us like they treat their enemies…

…I was lucky because of my family. They know I am smart. They love me. They found a way to keep me safe. I am alright now, but a lot of kids aren’t so lucky…

…my film is for all Aboriginal kids. It’s about our dreams, our hopes and our rights. I hope you think of me when you are telling the Australian government how to treat us better.”


THE PAINTED BIRD (Václav Marhoul, Czech Republic/Slovakia/Ukraine, 2019)

Xan Brooks, published in The Guardian on 3 September 2019:

“One day they’ll make a film about the first public screening of The Painted Bird, inside the Sala Darsena at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. It will feature the man who fell full-length on the steps in his effort to escape and the well-dressed woman who became so frantic to get out that she hit a stranger in the next seat. The centrepiece will be the moment 12 viewers broke for the doors only to discover the exit had been locked…After it’s over, the auditorium is hardly half full. Those who remain have decided to ride the rollercoaster right through…”

The cause of all this mayhem is a film about an orphaned and homeless Jewish boy who wanders through non-specific Nazi-occupied Slavic countries during World War Two. He experiences, and bears witness to, considerable depravities including beatings, torture, eye-gouging, child sex, executions, sexual assault, bestiality, rape (one with a bottle) and the burning of an entire village and the murder of many inhabitants. 

It’s three hours of hell inside a thinly veiled Holocaust metaphor.

Years ago, I periodically attended international film school congresses. Strange things would often happen and the antics of the Slavic delegates were particularly endearing.

They would carefully choose their time and place. During a session on, say, “Digital Transformations in Film Schools” one might stand up during the question time, but never ask a question. Instead, he would deliver an uninterrupted, improvised 20-minute oration on the mystical and poetic properties of black-and-white celluloid film stock. 

Cinematographers, he would tell us, are the greatest artistic contributors to the cinema and their palates are being destroyed by the move to digital filmmaking. Everyone remained patient until, exhausted, he sat down. “They do this” whispered the Brazilian delegate next to me.

The Slavic enthusiasm for cinematography is on fine display in The Painted Bird. Vladimir Smutný has used black and white 35mm Kodak stock and his work is transcendently beautiful, providing a most remarkable visual counterpoint to the devastation he photographs. It’s like peering into a crystalline landscape to view atrocities through the painterly clarity of Vermeer or the pristine detail of a medieval illuminated manuscript.

I have previously written of the group-think mania that can take over press rooms at major film festivals. Reading the reviews of The Painted Bird’s screening at Venice a year ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking Marhoul had exceeded the excesses of Gaspar Noé or Lars Von Trier or even the Pasolini of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

What we see in The Painted Bird isn’t more graphic than scenes from the three films it most closely resembles. The eye-gouging isn’t more horrifying than the melted crucifix being poured into the mouth of the bishop’s assistant in Andrei Rublev. The sex scenes involving the boy aren’t any more confronting than the sex scenes with the drummer boy in The Tin Drum. And the slaughter of a village by Russian Cossacks isn’t any more bloodthirsty than a similar Nazi slaughter of Belarusian villagers in Come and See.

In this film Marhoul’s vice-like direction and clarity of purpose is at least the equal of Tarkovsky, Schlöndorff and Klimov. 

The director hit back at the press after the Venice Festival. Referring to the 14 million who died in the Slavic regions during the reigns of Hitler and Stalin, Marhoul said: “compared with reality, the film is toned down”.

He disputes the press beat-ups:

“At the first screening, it was 1,500 and a maximum of 70 walked out. That means 1,430 people stayed. And the next day, from 1,200 people, maybe five left.”

The Painted Bird failed to pick up a single award at Venice despite speculation it might walk off with the Golden Lion. Of the eventual winner, Joker, Marhoul commented:

“The violence in Joker is much more visible, much more brutal, but Joker didn’t get the same reputation…Joker is a comic book character, but The Painted Bird is truthful. So, audiences are scared, but they’re not scared about my movie. Maybe they’re scared about themselves – because I’m showing them something in their own minds, in their own hearts, they would like to hide from. Maybe this is the problem.”


AN OFFICER AND A SPY (Roman Polanski, France/Italy, 2019)

Another controversial film at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, this one from Roman Polanski, won second prize - the Silver Lion. Under a storm of new and old allegations of sexual assault against the director, An Officer and a Spy(J’accuse) also won three Césars in France, (Best Director, Best Adaptation, Best Costume Design). It’s been released in more than a dozen countries, but none of them are English-speaking. 

Is cancel culture a predominately Anglo-Saxon thing?

Writing in Cineaste (Vol. XLV, no.3), Robert Koehler suggests the history of art is full of moral monsters who “create great, enduring works.” He asks:

Can we reject wholesale Ezra Pound’s poetry based on his fascist politics?...Do Chaplin’s scandals with underage girls disqualify him as one of the supreme artists of the cinema and possibly the giant of the silent era? Does Miles Davis’s documented history as a wife-beater cancel his greatness as the key artist in modern jazz history?...Can Eisenstein’s and Vertov’s early Soviet masterpieces be viewed as defenses of an incipient totalitarian state? Leni Reifenstahl’s of Nazism? They can. And they can also be makers of great cinema.”

Doco Series:

Cheer (Greg Whiteley, USA);Country Music (Ken Burns, USA); Agents of Chaos( Alex Gibney, USA)




1917 (Sam Mendes, UK/USA/India/Spain/Canada/China); Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, USA); First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA); I’m No Longer Here (Fernando Frias, Mexico/USA); Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, France); Matthias & Maxime (Xavier Dolan, Canada/France); The Assistant (Kitty Green, USA); The Song of Names (Francois Girard, Canada/Hungary/UK/Germany)


The Beach



The Cave (Feras Fayyad, Denmark/Germany/France/UK/USA/Qatar/Syria); A Secret Love (Chris Bolan, USA); American Utopia (Spike Lee, USA); Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (Werner Herzog, USA); For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts, UK/Syria/USA);Honeyland (Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska, Republic of North Macedonia); The Beach (Warwick Thornton, Australia); Totally Under Control (Alex Gibney, USA); What Are You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire (Roberto Minervini, Italy/France/USA); Zappa (Alex Winter, USA)


 Babylon Berlin

Drama Series


Babylon Berlin 3 (Germany); I May Destroy You (UK); The Bureau 5 (France); The Good Lord Bird (USA); The Queen’s Gambit (USA); Unorthodox (USA); The Salisbury Poisonings (UK); Watchmen (USA)

CONTRIBUTIONS WELCOME: Send lists, comments, dot points or any thoughts to All contributions published.

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