New York

Ken McMullen, Zina

Film Forum 1

In Ken McMullen’s Ghostdance, 1983, Leonie Mellinger and the late Pascal Ogier wandered around aimlessly but gorgeously, searching for ghosts and hearing voices. One of the voices they heard and heeded was that of Jacques Derrida, philosopher of international renown. In McMullen’s Zina, 1985, we once again watch a ravishingly beautiful woman wander around, entranced by the real and hallucinated voice of another bastion of greatness, her daddy Leon Trotsky (played by Philip Madoc). Zina Bronstein (Domiziana Giordano) is in a bad state, alternately blurting and pouting, blond tendrils framing her stunning anguished face, looking a bit like an escapee from a Deborah Turbeville photo. When another authoritative male voice, that of her psychoanalyst, Dr. Kronfeld (Ian McKellen), suggests that she should get a hold of herself, she despairingly replies, "Get a hold of what? I’m selfless . . . the good-for-nothing daughter of the most important man of our time.

From selfless good-for-nothingness to the black holes of ghostdom, McMullen consistently focuses his considerable cinematic expertise on the notion of absence, on its disembodied yet palpable materialization in the form of spirit beings and fugitive memories, and its swampy demiemergence in that repository of gooily exotic instinct: women. In Zina, McMullen engages a threefold agenda. First, he characterizes Bronstein as a tormented analysand, a stunning misfit who plays bag lady in art galleries and at family get-togethers. Sliding toward suicide, she struggles with the demons that people the empty space left by her father’s exile from his family and his homeland. Second, McMullen has researched Trotsky’s writings, Bronstein’s letters, and Isaac Deutscher’s three-part biography of Trotsky—The Prophet Armed (1954), The Prophet Unarmed (1959), and The Prophet Outcast (1963)—in order to set the scene both historically and politically for his life and banishment. Establishing this procedure early on, Zina’s precredit sequence sports a list of events that historically grounds the film and positions its narrative enravelment.

McMullen’s third approach is to parallel this narrative with the pattern of classic tragedy, the conventional “battle between instinct and reason” riff. It’s al-most as if he wanted to give this damsel’s sob story more weight by anchoring it to the “important” procedures of the epic genre. According to McMullen, he evoked the “epic” in order to have political and social events act similarly to the way battle scenes function in Shakespearean tragedy What a bright boy! He collapsed the multiplicities of social life into conventional binary narrative devices, as if a critique of the classic and epic form would be quite unheard of. And although the film takes on the gloss of multiple shufflings and displacements, this “look” is just another stylistic appropriation obscuring McMullen’s uncritical investment in the power of master genres, master discourses, and masterpieces. Perhaps thankfully, rather than remaining content with dry avant-garde illustrations of theory, he juices up his cinematic items with continental philosopher kings and glamorous female movie stars, even adding more than a dollop of contempo feminist and psychoanalytic concerns.

Zina Bronstein was a young Jewish woman living in despair as the forces of Nazism were consolidating around her. Trotsky, exiled by two repressive regimes, Czarist and Stalinist, provides the film with an analysis of National Socialism that resonates with chilling accuracy. Their words, through voice-over and visual reenactment, lend Zina its strength, its willingness to question the present by reminding us of the past. At a time when the notion of histories is being handily and dangerously evacuated, this film could have served as a compelling reminder. That it too often resembles a poetically flashy conceit, a neat and arty docudrama for enlightened academics, is really too bad.

Barbara Kruger