Chuck Norris vs Communism: Hollywood Narrative in Documentary Form

An analysis to accompany SO1EO4 by Oana-Maria Mazilu.

So, have you watched Chuck Norris vs Communism yet? Wasn’t it awesome?! Did you know that VCR tapes of Hollywood films were being smuggled in Romania in the 1980s? If you’ve watched the film, my guess is that it has informed you of this interesting way of distributing and watching movies, and how much Hollywood entertainment meant for Romanians, as a form of defiance towards Ceaușescu’s oppressive, censorship-infested regime. It may have also led you to believe that these VCR tapes sparked Romania’s 1989 Revolution. Well, that’s not quite true. Unsurprisingly, a number of viewers familiar with the historical context got up from their seats to say ‘That’s not how it happened!’. They were right, but the truth is that such historical details were not the focus of Chuck Norris vs Communism. This is not a documentary that informs the viewer of the number of Securitate officers, or even what the Securitate was, it does not present Ceaușescu’s personality cult and the regime’s policies. These topics have been discussed both in academia, by historians such as Dennis Deletant, and in film through numerous TV documentaries. However, aspects of leisure life in communist Romania have rarely been touched upon and this is one of the reasons for which Chuck Norris vs Communism stands out. We know that the regime was oppressive, but what were Romanians in the 1980s actually doing when they weren’t standing in the food cue? Chuck Norris vs Communism tells us that at least parts of their evenings were spent watching bootlegged videotapes of Hollywood films, the majority of which were dubbed by Irina Nistor. In showing this story, Chuck Norris vs Communism displays a stylised narrative structure that draws from the conventions of classical Hollywood filmmaking.   

I mentioned in the podcast episode that the docudrama label may have been more fitting for Chuck Norris vs Communism, rather than categorising it so solidly as a documentary. It is true that the film is dominated by three of the most easily identifiable documentary techniques: talking heads (interviews), re-enactments and use of archival footage. Yet, in the classical Hollywood tradition, the film presents us with ‘individual characters making things happen’ as put simply by Bordwell, Thompson and Smith (2017, p.98). The first 7 minutes of Chuck Norris vs Communism establish historical context and setting. Before the film title even appears on screen, as audiences we are informed through title cards of the time period (1985), location (Romania), and context (Ceaușescu’s regime, cultural isolation, control of free speech and media, fear of surveillance). Each interviewee adds their own, personal experience of the time as the editing cuts between talking heads, re-enactments of people sitting around the TV, and archival footage from VHS tapes of Dirty Dancing, Once Upon a Time in America, 12 Weeks and Last Tango in Paris. They are not just scenes from these films. There is a particularly graininess to them that shows the image quality of these tapes, and then with Last Tango in Paris we hear…the voice. And so begins the gradual introduction of our protagonist, one that builds and maintains curiosity across the duration of the film because, in truth, Irina Nistor herself appears on screen roughly an hour later. Until then, Ana Maria Moldovan plays the character of Irina Nistor in re-enactments that feature the translator. These specific re-enactments are pieces of the film within a film. Change the perspective, and moments of Chuck Norris vs Communism feel as though the interviewees are commenting on an Irina Nistor bio pic. One such scene is the re-enactment of Irina Nistor being called into Orzan’s office. Nistor’s voice-over describes the incident and her nervousness, while Ana Maria Moldovan embodies these emotions. She fidgets with her glasses in the elevator, as she walks into the office and holds papers tightly into her fist. Behind her, the portrait of Ceaușescu looms as an almost haunting presence. The camera itself is backed up into the corners of the room and static as it captures Orzan’s anger over Nistor’s translation of Jesus of Nazareth, a banned film. Audibly, it is one of the scenes where we hear both Irina Nistor’s voice, and Ana Maria Moldovan’s trained voice to sound like Irina Nistor. The two take turns when talking. The voices don’t overlap and there is a seamless transition between them. Take away the visuals, and you might not be able to distinguish between Irina Nistor’s real voice and that of Ana Maria Moldovan in playing this role. The scene would have never worked had Moldovan failed to capture that voice because we have the real voice to compare it with right then and there. Truthfully, a substantial difference between the two would have been noticed early on in Chuck Norris vs Communism and disappointed audiences instantly. 

Orzan’s office scene is also interesting in terms of the conventions of the classical Hollywood narrative. It is tense, it keeps audiences in suspense, it shows our protagonist in conflict with an authority representative, and follows the linear cause and effect structure. Nistor was dubbing bootlegged VHS tapes, the authorities have truly caught on, and so the plot has progressed to this tense point. Thus, Chuck Norris vs Communism gradually begins to work on resolving the conflict. Perhaps the most illustrative section of the film in respect to the classical Hollywood narrative is the ending. In classical Hollywood tradition, closed endings are preferred. A closed ending does not leave you hanging. It provides closure and satisfies audiences. Could Chuck Norris vs Communism have provided a closed ending without mentioning the 1989 Revolution? No. In its endeavour to satisfy audience expectations, Romanian viewers certainly expected some note on the Revolution, not only because of the chronology of the events, but also because pretty much every other documentary on communist Romanian ends with the Revolution. In one way or another, it’s just expected.

The scene before archival footage of the Revolution starts rolling on the screen signals the closed ending. It is one where all documentary techniques come together: talking heads, re-enactments of people watching bootlegged tapes and Moldovan in her role as Irina Nistor, and archival footage. The real Irina Nistor had recently appeared and informed us, visually and audibly, of the films she had dubbed and satisfied that curiosity of what she really looks like. In this scene, it is she who informs us of the fall of the regime, specifically the confusion on whether Ceașescu would truly be removed from power. Other interviewees further strengthen this signal, as talking heads are intercut with footage from Rocky II. It’s funny that the only person who didn’t seem to know about the extent of the VHS black market was Ceaușescu himself. The Revolution is the climax of Chuck Norris vs Communism, and in the cause and effect narrative that it had woven around Irina Nistor as a protagonist, it frames these VHS tapes, and Nistor herself, as having had some contribution to sparking the Revolution. In case you missed it, one interviewee tells you that the VHS tapes planted the seeds of freedom. Of course, this is the point that generated the audience backlash. It is not historically accurate and it is the only moment that does not meet audience expectations, specifically the expectation that a documentary film should be factually correct. It works in the recipe of classical Hollywood narrative, but not in that of documentary film. But Chuck Norris vs Communism does not end here. Archival footage of the Revolution may tell us what happened to the regime, but not what happened to the VHS operation. To provide a fully closed ending, the final scene informs audiences that Zamfir quickly sold his equipment and the operation ceased in the early 90s.                              

Chuck Norris vs Communism took a leap in how it framed the connection between bootlegged VHS tapes and the Revolution. A docudrama label would have tackled the expected truthfulness of the documentary genre, eliminating, or at least diminishing the audience backlash. However, it remains a pleasurable and entertaining watch that captures the oral history of how Romanians were watching Hollywood films at a peak time of oppression in the Ceaușescu regime. 

References

Bordwell, D., Thompson, K. and Smith, J. (2017). Film Art: An Introduction. 11th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

SO1EO4: “Hollywood vs Oppression”

In this episode:

Oana-Maria Mazilu discusses Romanian film culture in the late 20th Century with an in-depth analysis of Chuck Norris vs Communism (Ilinca Calugareanu, 2015).

Discussion:
  • Romanian cinema as a niche subject
  • The domestic reception of Chuck Norris vs Communism
  • The international audience and the novelty and familiarity of the subject
  • An analysis of the documentary form of Chuck Norris vs Communism
  • Films that were circulated as bootlegged videotapes
  • How bootlegged videotapes were discussed in Cinema
  • How people watched films before the bootlegged videotapes

If you enjoyed this, read the follow-up article, Chuck Norris vs Communism: A Hollywood Narrative in Documentary Form, and support us on Patreon for more content.

Sexy Beast takes its aim at the ‘tyranny of realism’

An analysis to accompany SO1EO3 by Dr Katerina Flint-Nicol

As I discussed in the podcast, the British gangster film has developed its own relationship with realism, and I refer to realism here in its broadest sense, from representation to narrative origins, and casting choices. While Sexy Beast pivots on subverting genre expectations with Ben Kingsley’s fear-shredding performance as a London gangster and Ray Winstone’s in-vogue star persona, the film reaches beyond the associative qualities of realism – grittiness, naturalism, dreariness – embracing an injection of surrealism, an unusual direction for a British gangster film. While such a filmic strategy does not impact a feel of authenticity in the film, it does imagine characterisation in a broader scope than mere flat-packed stereotypes, whilst developing and elevating the form of the genre. Realism, while still present, becomes then a critical compass point from which to depart from.

Much of this should be attributed to the writing team of Louis Mellis and David Scinto, and director, Jonathan Glazer. Sexy Beast was Glazer’s debut feature film, having spent the preceding decade directing music videos for high-profile artists such as Radiohead, Blur, Nick Cave and Massive Attack. Glazer brings an arresting visual style (sharpened by the form of music video) to the film and it isn’t too implausible to position Glazer with two other British directors noted for their visual flair, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, both of whom also began their careers honing their craft working on short-forms, albeit commercials. Wouldn’t it be something not to confine British directors in discussions and categorisations by canon, tradition, or genre, but illuminate their filmmaking by what they share as visual storytellers? Glazer’s crafting of the visual in Sexy Beast finds synergy with Mellis’ and Scinto’s language-rich script informed by an ear for the vernacular. But Scinto and Mellis’ work (the duo also wrote Gangster No 1, and 44 Inch Chest, completing a triptych of gangster films) has been described as challenging British cinema to be more cinematic.  

Cinematic. Hhmm.  What has ‘cinematic’ come to now mean? Its use now brings to my mind that Morrisey lyric, “heavy words are so lightly thrown” (fortunately, not much else takes me back to that old house these days) in that the word’s use oscillates wildly between praise and disparagement, omitting clarification. Are we to think British cinema to be too natural? Too gritty? Too…dreary? Answers on a postcard. But for Sexy Beast, its ‘cinematic’ tag can be found in sequences of an aesthetic of interiority that punctuate the narrative. A presentation of an interior is unusual for a British gangster film as class identity and gender is so aligned with the physical – both body and actions, violence and narrative progression, there is always an association with movement.

But in Sexy Beast, Glazer halts the action and temporality to unveil visually Gal’s anxiety and his love for Deedee. There is a beautiful montage sequence in the first third of the film where Gal, Deedee, Aitch and Jackie are enjoying an evening at the villa. There’s no diegetic sound, but rather Glazer overlays exterior music, the track Lujon by Henry Mancini lifted from the 1959 TV series, Mr Lucky about a professional gambler, an inclusion that requires reading as a comment on Gal’s feelings towards Deedee. The stringed instrumental swirls up and down in time with the flames rising from the BBQ. And we see Gal and Aitch play-fighting, Deedee dancing, the editing and speed presents the sequence as a highly stylised home-movie-shot aesthetic. We are meant to be watching a gangster film, and yet this sequence is an enactment of homely happiness and romantic love. The tone is one of fun, camaraderie, and love. And within this montage, we hear Gal’s thoughts – Gal’s monologues being a persistent trope in the film. In a quick series of shots, Gal’s head is framed looking beyond the camera and we hear his voice declare “it’s hot. It’s damn hot”. And before we can finish our interpretation he’s referring to the temperature, the action cuts to Deedee dancing erotically, but in a homespun style, and not towards the camera – she isn’t objectified, which is crucial to understanding her relationship with Gal. But the construction of shots instructs the audience that Gal is thinking of Deedee. The action cuts back to Gal smoking a cigar. He blows a smoke ring which grows to fill out the frame and transform into the shape of a love heart. And then we see Gal and Deedee horizontally floating in the frame, embracing.

This is one example of how Glazer halts the linear narrative of the film replacing it with an interior space. Not only is it an aesthetic choice disrupting the form of the gangster film, but also a formal strategy in the articulation of masculine identity of Gal. If you are not aligning or centering a working-class identity with physical form, actions, and violence, then you must find an alternative strategy to articulate that particular identity. And what these dream and interior sequences do is to construct Gal’s identity, masculinity foremostly, within his relationship to Deedee, and more broadly with the bonds he has with Aitch and Jackie. It is a different, and unusual choice of a surreal cinematic language for the animation of a working-class masculinity. But it is a clear move away from the usual construction of this classed, masculine identity and sexuality heavily associated with the gangster film, and one governed and dictated by the hierarchy of homosocial bonds within a criminal fraternity; often bonds that are founded upon a loyalty that is enacted and extracted through violence and fear.

One last thing I wish to say on the inflections of art-house stylization in the film and the relationship to filmic depictions of class is in how it raises questions, or challenges the conception that working-class identities have to be animated within the remit of realism. So often a working-class experience within the popular cultural imagination has become synonymous with ‘realistic’, ‘authentic’, ‘gritty’, ‘real-life’, which is on the one hand, necessary to ensure the continued presence of identity, not necessarily agency, within popular cultural form. And I say this in the knowledge that realism is a mediated construct and ideologically infused. But realism in all its widest renderings, limits, or stifles narratives, what experiences and identities are told on film and sits within what Paul Gilroy describes as the ‘poverty of imagination’ when it comes to working-class identity onscreen. When it is stated that British cinema suffers from the ‘tyranny of realism’, it’s not just how the social realist drama dominates the narrative of British cinema history and the hierarchal valuation of film form within that discourse, and also to a certain degree funding for film projects, and impacts representation and then characterisation.

SO1EO3: “Our Guys Are Villains”

In this episode:

Dr Katerina Flint-Nicol discusses the British gangster film with an in-depth analysis of Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000).

Discussion:
  • Why the British gangster film matters
  • How the British gangster film transformed
  • The post-1960s British gangster film
  • The performance and stardom of working class actors in film
  • A discussion on Sexy Beast
  • The casting and performance of Ray Winstone
  • The casting and performance of Ben Kingsley

If you enjoyed this, read the follow-up article, ‘Sexy Beast takes its aim at the ‘tyranny of realism’, and support us on Patreon for more content.

The Heartbreak of Marguerite

An analysis to accompany SO1E02 by Dr Ann-Marie Fleming

What really breaks Marguerite’s heart? Is it the discovery of her own voice? Or perhaps it is the realisation that those around her have aided her delusion? Could it be the collapse of her perception of self, the very moment she wonders: what am I, what is left of me?

As independent academics, we too have felt that final heartbreak. When the full realisation of the academic market was upon us, did we not too stare into the proverbial gramophone? Gazing into the dark tunnelled abyss to hear nothing but our own echoing voices, voices which sung out-of-tune with the practises of the institutional juggernauts. Then, on hearing the harsh truth of a flooded and hostile academic environment, did we not too collapse and ask: if not this, then what am I? Perhaps, dear reader, you too have met a juncture in which your identity, what you do and how you think, has been called into question. It is not difficult, then, to sympathise with Marguerite.

This short appreciation will focus on the last scene of the film, the sequence in which Marguerite’s doctors, friends, and husband agree to let Marguerite hear her own voice. It will focus on Catherine Frot’s performance, and in particular, on a moment which exceeds expectation in its honest simplicity.

To begin our appreciation of Frot’s performance, let us first turn our attention to the mise-en-scène (everything we see on-screen). Due to the hospital setting, the surroundings are sparsely decorated, and the corridors and halls are large and wide. It is not, therefore, a dense mise-en-scène. Due to this, the audience’s attention is focused on the performer and her relationship to the camera, the physical space in which she occupies, and the situation of the character. In the hall, and as she arrives on the stage, Frot is dwarfed by the enormity of the space and the distance of the camera. Marguerite does not yet know of the humiliation that awaits her, and as a result, Frot sits down with a flair, sending the kimono robe cascading over the chair and encroaching the personal space of the doctor. Marguerite believes she owns the stage, it is her natural home, and thus Frot chooses to act as the flamboyant and confident performer attempting to dominate the surroundings and focus the attention on her.

A blank screen frames both Frot and the gramophone, insulating them from the rest of the empty space on either side of the main frame. It is here that her black fan is swapped for a red one and she is given a bouquet of flowers. A scene within a scene is therefore set, and Frot poses as the camera edges slowly closer to witness the confidence in which she smiles and moves her fan. The fan is integral to this performance, as a prop, Frot uses it to show her excitement and anticipation by moving it quickly for a significant period of time. The film cuts to behind Frot, showing only her and the gramophone in focus. The gramophone, despite sharing the space, appears to dominate her in much the same way as the space of the stage did in a previous shot. The music begins and all the audience see is the back of Frot’s head and the fast movement of the fan. During the start of the song, Frot pauses the waving of the object, but just for a short while. She continues to move the prop for another couple of seconds and then stops completely. The audience have not yet seen Frot’s face, but because of the earlier rhythm and operation of the fan, the audience know that there is a change of emotion. Frot holds this moment, building the anticipation of the audience to see her reaction, impacting the pace of this sequence through the beats of her performance. The technique is successful because it withholds before it reveals, and as a result indicates an interior life of a character which is developed and thoughtful. As the song reaches a particular high note, Frot’s head slowly turns to face the gramophone.

The film cuts to the position of the record. Frot is now dominating the frame due to the position of the camera. She is no longer unaware of the situation, and as such, we are given privy to her minute expressions. Frot’s eyes, previously side-glancing the speaker, move quickly to the record as the source of her disappointment. The down-turned mouth unmoving, she drops her head slightly and the fan falls completely out of view. With one comprehensive and slow blink, Frot stares once more before collapsing.

In this sequence, it is the fan that indicates Marguerite’s emotions. Through Frot’s use of the prop she has moved from excitement, to disbelief, to a deep sadness. The naturalistic and under-stated performance of Catherine Frot communicates the inner consciousness of Marguerite, revealing a deep heartbreak which resonates in the minds of the viewer long after the credits are over.

SO1EO2: “Grotesque Stardom”

In this episode:

Dr Ann-Marie Fleming discusses mature women on-screen with an in-depth analysis of Marguerite (Xavier Giannoli, 2015).

Discussion:
  • Why film representation matters
  • The active and passive woman in Classic Disney animation
  • The media and film’s depiction of female ageing
  • Post-War American film and the ageing star on-screen
  • The tropes and similarities in content in the ageing star film
  • A discussion of Marguerite and duality
  • An in-depth analysis of Catherine Frot’s performance

If you enjoyed this, read the follow-up article, The Heartbreak of Marguerite, and support us on Patreon for more content.

Where did the children go?

An analysis to accompany SO1EO1 by Dr Zahra Tavassoli Zea

Child abandonment is a theme, which, at first sight, can easily slip out of our grasp. What does it mean to be abandoned? Should we examine such notion from a factual perspective, or should we engage with it more subjectively? Maurice Pialat is categorical: he chooses the former. He leaves no room for self-pity or autobiographical hints and, blimey, that’s refreshing! 

His first feature length, L’Enfance nue (1968), addresses one of the most universal and ever-present problems of our societies by drawing inspiration from a concrete, social reality, taking place at the premises of departmental Child Welfare authorities, and at foster family homes in France. Unlike François Truffaut, who drew, in 400 Blows (1959), from his strained relationship with his mother and subsequent personal experience at the Observation Centre for Delinquent Minors, Pialat opts for a documentary and parsimonious eye, with no frills, if it’s not a few necessary seconds of Wagner. His camera interferes, with utmost restraint, in the kitchens and bedrooms of his non-professional actors who, like Mémère and Pépère, are intimately linked to the shooting locations, for the simple fact that they are foster parents and grandparents residing in Pas-de-Calais. I have no doubt that some spectators would even want to accuse Pialat of not going far enough, of not exploring all the dramatic possibilities of such copious and political topic. Pialat, however, is too conscientious and sensitive to fall into the facile trap of pathos. 

In the 15th sequence of the film [19’34–22’19], for instance, the audience witnesses a conversation between two social workers on a train in the same way a distracted passenger overhears the chatter of his seat companions. Surrounded by a dozen kids of different ages, one of the women lifts the silver medallions some of them wear over their neck. These lockets, which, from a distance, look more like christening jewels than anything else, are actually tags that classify them through an “abandoned child” inscription. While this transition scene, which depicts François’ itinerary from the Childhood Centre in Paris to the Adoption Office in Arras, could be regarded as entirely documentary, Pialat preserved the anonymity of boys and girls looking for adoptive families, and replaced them with what people would call “ordinary” children. Thus, young actors like François and Raoul were able to learn, throughout the filming, about the living conditions and misfortunes of those who may as well have become – or who already were – their schoolmates, friends and neighbours.

Surely, some might consider that such strategy is detrimental to Pialat’s realism, and in particular, to its inherent quest for truthfulness. However, the absence in situ of children seeking adoption reveals Pialat’s necessity of establishing moral imperatives within his artistic practice. Indeed, he is not pretending to film the burdensome adoption process in its entirety, and with all its issues and complexities, as it existed more than 50 years ago. His film merely tries to capture a few elements evoking the institutional, administrative and departmental functioning of the numerous shelters, placement and training centres for youth all over the country. Therefore, the story of François, which is based on adopted children’s testimonies, could be seen as the tip of the iceberg of an uncomfortable truth, made of unspoken tragedies, as intimated in this particular scene. When explaining a few of the challenges of her profession to her novice colleague, the social worker shares a brief anecdote about the time she went up North to present a little boy to foster parents. Ultimately, they turned him down due to his skin colour.  

The real number of abandoned, neglected and abused children during and after the colonial era remains a dark and overlooked facet in the history of our first world countries. Pialat’s camera shows that rural and provincial French manners and customs didn’t change much throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet, the shadow of childhood misery darkens the picture of what we thought were, at first, quaint and quiet dining rooms. Where did the children go? L’Enfance nue continues to ask, today. Despite his taste for sobriety, Pialat hands over the keys of hope to older generations, by calling upon their wisdom, teachings and, most of all, compassion. And, if I may prolong this thought… shouldn’t we all try, one day, to live up to Pépère and Mémère’s level of grace and dignity?  

SO1EO1: “A Start in Life”

In this episode:

Dr Zahra Tavassoli Zea discusses “the coming of age” film in French cinema with an in-depth analysis of L’Enfance Nue (Maurice Pialat, 1968).

Discussion:
  • The start of cinema and the Lumière projections
  • Literary adaptations and “the coming of age film”
  • Presenting the human condition in L’Enfance Nue
  • The political protests in May 1968
  • L’Enfance Nue as a social critique
  • Future discussions this season
  • What future generations will film about their 21st century childhood

If you enjoyed this, read the follow-up article, ‘Where did the children go?’ and support us on Patreon for more content.