MOON HOTEL KABUL Film Review
Most film festivals are categorically determined – by the type of production (Toronto’s Hot Docs only showcases nonfiction films); genre (TCM Classic Film Festival screens vintage pictures); time (LA Shorts International Film Festival won’t show feature-length movies); and perhaps most importantly, by subject matter (the Pan African Film Festival highlights Black-themed works). The South East European Film Festival mainly focuses on those countries that were formerly part of the so-called “Iron Curtain,” as well as former Yugoslavia.
The 14th annual SEEfest was, appropriately, kicked off on May Day with an opening night gala at the prestigious Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, where the Romanian feature Moon Hotel Kabul was screened for a nearly sold out audience. The movie was preceded by the presentation of SEEfest’s Legacy Award by the festival’s Founder and Director Vera Mijojlic to Gregory Laemmle, whose family provides an essential cinematic service to Angelenos by showing indie, international, cult and classic films at its nine-theater L.A. chain. I believe that this entertainment industry dynasty is descended from early mogul Carl Laemmle of Universal, which produced many horror masterpieces (presumably why Pasadena’s Laemmle Playhouse displays images of Dracula, etc., in its bathroom) and who, BTW, speaking of horror, personally rescued many Jews from the Holocaust.
EMOTIONS TECHNOLOGY AND I:
The idea was to see how our views of boredom, loneliness, selfhood, and community have evolved over time, and how technologies have sparked those evolutions. And what they found was striking: We don’t merely develop new devices for expressing our emotions — our devices actually alter what emotions we express.
I reached out to one of the book’s authors, Susan J. Matt, to find out more. Matt is a cultural historian at Weber State University.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I want to start by asking about the people who make up the basis for your research — both the people you interviewed today and the people from the 18th and 19th centuries whose memoirs and diaries and letters you looked at. Are we talking about a broad cross-section of people? Is this representative of the broader population? Or was it a narrower demographic that you looked at?
Susan J. Matt
Certainly for the 19th and 20th century, we cast as wide a net as we could get. And, of course, who leaves diaries and memoirs is somewhat contingent upon their social class and their literacy.
But we were able, for example, to get enslaved people’s memoirs about being lonely, among the many other problems they faced in slavery. We were able to get factory workers’ experiences of boredom, and gold miners’ experiences of the first telegram they received.
Our oral histories of the experiences of 21st-century Americans probably skew middle class and white, but 20 percent of our interviewees were African American, Asian American, or Latina. And we tried to include as many different walks of life as we could, from ages 18 to 87, so we have truckers and we have poets and nurses aides and retired people.
We can’t say everybody in America is experiencing what we describe, but it seems like a very big, mainstream emotional style that we’re watching emerge.
Okay, so let’s go back to the past. What did it mean to be bored or lonely in the 18th or 19th century?
Susan J. Matt
Very different things. The word “boredom” didn’t even exist until the mid-19th century. When people experienced empty moments, they described them as dull or monotonous or tedious. Boredom wasn’t a category of experience yet.
People expected feelings of empty time and accepted them as part and parcel of being human. It doesn’t mean they enjoyed dull moments by any stretch of the imagination, but they weren’t surprised by empty times. And in fact many thought that’s how God had laid out the world.
Just as 19th-century Americans accepted monotony as inevitable, they also accepted loneliness — or as they called it, “lonesomeness” — as part of the order of things; they thought it was unpleasant but not unexpected and that everybody was going to experience aloneness in their lives.
And how do you distinguish boredom from loneliness?
Susan J. Matt
I think today we generally call being alone “loneliness.” Often in the 19th century, people talked about it in terms of solitude, and it was generally seen in a more positive, redemptive light. Just having that different language gave the experience of being alone a different meaning and value.
The study of the history of emotions suggests that although we may use the same words for feelings across centuries, in different eras these words are embedded in different cultures and end up having very different connotations.
As a result, the words mean something different and the feeling itself may be different too. Not only because of language, but language surely affects how we think about how we feel.
So for most of human history, loneliness or boredom were just accepted features of the human condition. But now we never have to be alone; we can always plug in and distract ourselves from what’s right in front of us. That seems like a monumental shift in consciousness.
Susan J. Matt
It is. The rise of the smartphone certainly has meant constant companionship — or at least the promise of constant companionship. We don’t always find it. But the phone’s always there, beckoning us with the promise of fulfillment and excitement. It promises instantaneous entertainment and variety.
But it’s not the first technology that people turned to in order to relieve boredom and loneliness.
Can you give me an example?
Susan J. Matt
Sure: the radio. We found many people in the 1920s and 1930s thinking the radio was transforming their lives and times, often voicing the sentiment, “Thanks to the radio, I don’t have to sit in solitude in my house.” We found evidence of that in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
The smartphone has amplified that experience because it’s not just listening in to whatever the local station offers; now with online media there’s choice, and of course, smartphones offer visual entertainment as well as instant two-way conversation.
So the smartphone represents a pretty dramatic shift in our expectations of companionship and entertainment — and a shift in how we respond to feelings like boredom and loneliness. Because of the promises of the digital age, when we experience those feelings, we’re more surprised and alarmed than our ancestors were.
What do we lose by losing our ability to be alone without being lonely?
Susan J. Matt
I think there are lots of things that people are giving up when they lose the ability to be alone. Unfilled moments, moments where you don’t have entertainment, or moments where you don’t have companionship, may actually spawn creativity. Certainly a lot of 19th-century romantics thought that.
Being still with yourself can give access to all sorts of ideas and musings that wouldn’t otherwise occur. So perhaps in our quest to end boredom our creativity is being stunted, and we’re actually becoming more boring.
In some ways our dependence on the phone also makes us less independent. Americans always celebrate self-reliance as a value, but it’s very clear we don’t — even for a moment — want to be by ourselves or on our own any longer. I have mixed feelings about the whole mythology of self-reliance. But certainly, while the myth that we’re self-reliant lives on, our ability to be alone seems to be going by the wayside.
And 21st-century Americans are developing all these expectations of having a kind of limitless, completely fulfilling, sociable life at all times, which make us really unequipped to deal with the moments that aren’t like that.
Is social media making the people who use it angrier and more narcissistic?
Susan J. Matt
We certainly found that, among the people we interviewed today, they talked about how they felt new and growing pressure to express, celebrate, and brand themselves.
People talked about consciously trying to edit their images to present a perfect self; they realized others were doing so, too. The net effect is that Americans who spend time online definitely have a sense they should be out in the internet public square, happily showing themselves off. This has given people a bigger sense of their self and that self’s importance.
We also saw people who talked about how they thought there was a connection between narcissism and anger; that people felt eager to get attention on the internet, and that having really strong and sometimes aggressive opinions on social media was one way to bring more business, more traffic to your tweet or to your update.
So this larger sense of self, and the increasing pressure to promote it in the online world, seems to be increasing both self-celebration and anger.
One person we interviewed, a nanny from Florida, told us she thought there was a connection between the two feelings. People got so used to getting endless affirmations from friends and relatives on Facebook or Instagram that when they didn’t get that, they didn’t know how to handle it, which as a result heightened their anger.
It seems like we’ve created a psychological crutch for ourselves, and now we can’t walk without it.
Susan J. Matt
I mean, we’re all hungry for attention in a disturbing way, right? And then we’re very disappointed when we don’t get it. And our new hopes for unlimited affirmation may fuel our anger when we don’t actually receive that affirmation.
Of course, that’s not the only reason people get angry on the internet. I don’t want to minimize some of the socially momentous and just causes people are pursuing online, where anger is a very legitimate tool for social change.
How is this pressure to perform, to brand ourselves, changing our personalities, apart from simply making us more narcissistic?
Susan J. Matt
One thing we found interesting was how 18th- and 19th-century Americans viewed the self. From childhood, people were constantly warned against self-celebration and self-promotion and told to always remember they were mortal, frail, and flawed. Keeping this idea of human frailty in mind was all part of avoiding the sin of vanity; those teachings were designed to make people aware of their human limits.
Over the course of the 19th century and 20th centuries, these older senses of vanity, of the vain futility of life, fell away. And as a result, what we see today is that when people post on social media, there’s no sense of their own limitations as humans. There’s often little modesty, or little fear that one could be going too far in self-promotion. So certainly 19th-century moralists would have been puzzled by our self-disclosing and self-promoting behaviors.
In the book, you say that the “new American self” is torn between individualism and community, between selfishness and sociability. Can you explain what you mean?
Susan J. Matt
Narcissism is a great example. On the one hand, the old myth of Narcissus was about someone who stared at himself and wasted away as he gazed lovingly into his reflection in a pool. Today, Americans are often accused of that behavior, but there’s an important difference.
While constantly uploading selfies could be understood as selfish, deep down what’s often motivating it is a longing for affirmation from one’s community. What you’re looking for when you post all this stuff is for your friends and family to like you. Right? And that’s a very sociable and communitarian instinct.
And lots of bloggers we interviewed said the same thing. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter, where we’re looking for the “Likes” or the thumbs-ups or the hearts. Bloggers told us they wanted to express themselves, but it only meant something to them if other people liked it.
So the tension between individualism and communitarianism is a longstanding one in American life. And it’s playing out anew in social media, as people try to get their individual voices out there while seeking the affirmation and approval of others.
It’s an interesting point about the digital communities we form, but at the same time this is the most vacuous, unfulfilling community imaginable. It’s online, it’s distant, and it’s based on mutual self-gratification. Human beings need more than this, don’t we?
Susan J. Matt
Absolutely. And that was something that was very apparent when we were studying anger. In the book, we describe 19th-century “indignation meetings,” which were remarkably widespread.
They were occasions where people would come face-to-face and gather in the town square, building a sense of community around a shared cause or grievance. One historian estimates there was one indignation meeting every five days in 19th-century America.
In contrast, today we see much more isolated expressions of anger, and a lot of times people are just looking for the “Likes” for their position. That doesn’t build the strong bonds of past social movements. That’s something Zeynep Tufekci raised in her 2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas: that the bonds in these online social movements aren’t as durable, and that this limits their success and staying power.
How do you know that it’s technology that’s changing our attitudes and not some other force or aspect of culture?
Susan J. Matt
We certainly don’t want to say it’s all due to technology. But there are some devices — whether it’s the 19th-century camera, the telephone, the radio, or the smartphone — that have reshaped Americans’ inner lives. These devices don’t do it alone, though.
Changing religious theologies are reinforcing these patterns. Changes in our capitalist economy are undergirding them, and these devices are both products of that culture and shapers of that culture. So it’s very much a reciprocal process; technology is a driver, but it’s not the only driver.
If you’re right, then it seems like technology possesses us, not the other way around.
Susan J. Matt
Well, that’s one of those classic questions: Are we masters of our tools, or are our tools masters of us?
One thing we all could be more conscious of is the understanding that both emotions and technologies are historical artifacts, that they’re shaped by humans. That realization makes it clear that we do actually have the power to collectively change them.
And as my co-author Luke Fernandez often says, technological design is a kind of legislation. Some want to regulate technology in order to control its cultural, social, and political effects, but we should also talk about redesigning technology to bring a different kind of emotional culture into being.
Do you worry that we’re attributing too much power to our machines — that our inner lives haven’t really changed much and that we just have more tools to express ourselves today?
Susan J. Matt
I really do believe emotions change over time, not just because of technology but as a result of a whole set of cultural and economic changes. Yes, we have more tools with which to express ourselves, but we have new feelings to express that are distinctive to our time and place. Emotions don’t just hold steady and get expressed through new devices. Devices transform them — teach us new habits, nurture new expectations, and model new behaviors, too.
What’s the upshot of a book like this? What do you want the reader to walk away with?
Susan J. Matt
We wanted readers to understand that so many of our concerns about Facebook making us lonely or Google making us stupid or selfies making us narcissistic were questions that need a longer historical perspective. And that they couldn’t be answered just by measuring loneliness in the 1980s and measuring it today.
We want people to understand that these are questions about our fundamental psychologies changing over time. The big pattern we see as we trace the intertwined histories of emotional and technological change over the last two centuries is the rising American hope for a limitless self.
Whereas 19th-century Americans perceived limits on how many people they could know, how much they should self-promote, how much excitement they should expect, 21st-century Americans are coming to expect that endless affirmation, unfettered anger, infinite cognitive power, unending entertainment, and constant companionship are our due as humans. Our technology is giving us these hopes, although they’re not always realized.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.B.
The great thing about the yearly SEEfest is that L.A. moviegoers get an opportunity to experience films they’d likely never get a chance to see – at least on the big screen – otherwise.
The great thing about the yearly SEEfest is that L.A. moviegoers get an opportunity to experience films they’d likely never get a chance to see – at least on the big screen – otherwise. This year’s theme is “Audacity in Cinema” (which is in stark contrast to the Democratic Party leadership’s motto: “the audacity of compromise”). Having attended a number of SEEfests over the years, most of the filmic offerings from this part of the world have a different cinematic sensibility from that of the usual Hollywood franchise and beyond. Moon Hotel Kabul is a case in point – especially as it was helmed, co-written and produced by a woman, Anca Damian, a veteran filmmaker who scored the Warsaw Film Festival’s “Best Director” accolade for Moon.
Compared to a typical Tinseltown blockbuster, Moon is slow moving and elliptical in a way, perhaps, Alain Resnais’ French New Wave films were. (BTW, to its credit, the Laemmle theaters are reviving Resnais’ 1961 avant-garde classic Last Year at Marienbad on July 12.) And certainly, Florin Piersic Jr. as the protagonist Ivan Semciuc is no Thor, Iron Curtain Iron Man, or even a Captain Romania. Rather, Ivan is a journalist who, while on assignment at war-torn Afghanistan, has a fateful one night stand with Ioana Preda (Ofelia Popii). After the translator somehow winds up dead, Moon becomes a kind of Film Noirish whodunit – and how was she “dun” in?
As the action shifts back to Ivan and Ioana’s native Romania, it is assumed that the translator has committed suicide. But did she? To his credit Ivan uses his journalistic skills to investigate what really happened to her. And in so doing Moon raises a number of disturbing questions about contemporary Romania.
First of all, what the hell are Romanian troops doing fighting in Afghanistan? The former Warsaw Pact nation appears to have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, by stupidly joining the imperialists’ militaristic alliance in 2004 and fighting Washington’s idiotic, endless wars. The expansion of NATO up to the borders of the former Soviet Union betrayed the agreements between Bush Sr. and the former USSR (see Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev, which opens May 3) and serve as provocations for the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin. (After the collapse of Romania’s pseudo-socialism, neutrality would have been an honorable option. But belonging to NATO?)
Ioana’s fate is reminiscent of the brouhaha surrounding those private talks between Trump and Putin where (at least the U.S. side) kept no written records – remember, Trump demanded that the American translator(s) turn over any notes kept of these highly confidential tête-à-têtes. Did Ioana’s interpreting lead to her becoming a victim of foul play? Inquiring minds – including our man Ivan’s – want to know.
Moon also raises the delicate question of freedom of the press, as Ivan has to contend with an editor who seems determined to contain the journo’s reportage regarding Ioana. Is this a reference to Stalinist apparatchiks who still chill free expression in a supposedly democratic Romania, which since 2007 has belonged to the European Union and supposedly guarantees these rights?
Although a discerning eye can easily determine this, according to IMDB.com none of Moon was actually shot on location in Kabul or anywhere else remotely near Afghanistan. The feature was entirely made in Romania, largely in Bucharest. Truth be told, the Romanian capital looks pretty bleak and unattractive and as such is a fitting background for this sort of murder mystery. Ivan’s excursion into Romania’s countryside to bring Ioana’s corpse to her family reminded me of Marx’s phrase “the idiocy of rural life.” Particularly as Ioana’s brother Mitu (Alexandru Nagy) is, by his own admission, “retarded.”
There is an inexplicable Bunuelian surreal scene I won’t ruin for you, as I despise plot spoilers, but keep an eye out for a supernatural touch in what is largely a naturalistic (and, BTW, pretty noisy) movie. (Methinks Romanian cars don’t have mufflers.) Over all, Damian’s dark look at post-“revolutionary” Romania paints a gloomy picture of a country that looks like it’s better visited onscreen, than in person. The citizens of today still seem to be paying for the Stalinist sins of the past, as Dr Olga M Lazin, a UCLA based Historian Puts it.
For more info about the South East European Film Festival, which runs through May 8, see: https://seefilmla.org/.
EMOTIONS AND TECHNOLOGY
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On Tue, May 7, 2019 at 6:36 AM james wilkie <jwwilkie> wrote: