Letter from the Burns

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Musings from JBFC Programming Director Brian Ackerman

Well, I’ve sat down to write something many times over the last two epic months. Something about film, about life, about the Burns. Something to the extended family of JBFC members that have made this 19-year cinematic journey so gratifying—certainly to me, and I know for many others, too. But as soon as I’d write something, three days later it would be irrelevant, obsolete, like the world on its axis had shifted yet again, and erased everything of meaning. We’re all still bobbing at sea, hoping it’s not too deep. And the only thing I realize I can say with enduring clarity is this: I miss everybody.

We have zoom meetings at the “office.” We’re trying to figure out, of course, how we will open, when, and who will show up when we do. Obviously we will let you know FIRST once we have any certainty, but at the moment it’s a bit of an equation with twenty variables where only one is known: we will, indeed, re-open!

Beyond that, as a programmer I have more time, but productivity is in short supply, like flour. Time stretches out. Weekdays blend into weekends. Someone I know has a Covid problem, or thinks they do—time is spent wrangling ever-elusive solutions. I sleep badly. I wake up too early. I read the news, and then try to expunge it by reading more—a very bad stratagem. I wonder what we’re running out of, that will require a high-wire dash through the supermarket, where everything of course has been brought to us by people who are working every day, hour after hour, in perilous conditions that I don’t share. In other words: I’m pretty much like a lot of people—privileged and, so far, pretty lucky. I constantly remind myself of that. So many others are less fortunate.

In that way I am ridiculously lucky to watch movies, too —some for the Burns, some just for pleasure. I will say sheepishly that one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time is not something that would have shown up on any big screen, but rather the HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrente’s My Brilliant Friend. If you haven’t seen it, it’s simply epic. Epic in its sweep of personal histories intersecting; epic in its illustration of why, as a species, we just can’t get it together. It so beautifully expresses how we’re all operating from such deep wounds, such ancient traumas, that everything we do in the present is a fractured reflection of our past, as we cast about blindly to repair or avert some inaccessible, oblique pain that nonetheless drives everything we do. And yet all that brokenness is what makes the story—and all of us—so beautiful. It’s essential watching.

We’re also showing two documentaries this week on our virtual screens that are really terrific: The Painter And The Thief, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The first is about an artist in Norway and the man who steals her painting. That happens in the first few minutes, so I’m not revealing much, and I won’t say more because the film benefits—like almost all movies—from a blank canvas of expectancy. But I was talking to JBFC Senior Programmer Andrew Jupin, and we both agreed that for Americans in this particular moment, it’s a bit like watching two movies. One is the film that the filmmaker made for us—the mysterious tale that unfolds from this theft—and the other is the one where you can’t help but notice the casual array of incredible social services that Norwegians simply regard as part of the air they breathe. From where we stand, in the world’s richest country, you can only crush your face against the store-front window longingly. It seems impossible that things actually work elsewhere.

Which brings me, naturally, to the second film we’re showing—Capital in the Twenty-First Century—based on economist Thomas Piketty’s bestselling book, which asks: how did we get here? And really more importantly: where can we go from here? Those are obviously big questions, and the film is a smart tour through the last four hundred years of economic history, occasionally driving down some illuminating side roads that are less familiar. I’ve invited filmmaker Astra Taylor—who did not make this film—to join us for a conversation on Thursday, May 28 at 7:30. I find her thrillingly brilliant and unconventional—a writer, an activist, a musician, and a documentary filmmaker. She makes documentaries about philosophers for chrissakes—nobody does that. You can increasingly find her provocative writings across the journalistic spectrum. She’s also thought really deeply about issues of economics and politics, and co-founded something called The Debt Collective around the immensely unspoken issue of debt, which, as millions fall suddenly into penury, may rise to meet its moment. The biblical scale of the floodwaters we’re experiencing seems like an awfully good time to open that discussion and see if we can go to some places that are perhaps less traveled. She was here last year and is just a fabulous speaker and presence, and I hope you will join us.

I’ll end on a last appeal for a film that Andrew put into rotation on our virtual screens last week: the hugely entertaining Rififi, that dazzling 1955 French thriller that is the father of all modern heist films. I was lucky enough to see it for the first time on the big screen here at the Burns 15 years ago, and have watched it twice since; its artfully staged burglary scene and wild, rhapsodic finish still thrill the heart. 

That’s it for the moment. I hope you’re all enjoying nature in this gloriously beautiful time of year, and remaining safe. There is, even through all of this, much to be thankful for. And someday, we’ll meet again at the movies.


Brian Ackerman

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