[Note: On Sunday, April 27, 2008, I attended a San Francisco International Film Festival event with fellow House Next Door contributor and blogger Ryland Walker Knight and his friend Jennifer Stewart. After the SFIFF presented Jim Hoberman with the Mel Novikoff Award (named for the famed San Francisco film exhibitor), Kent Jones quasi-interviewed Hoberman on stage for about an hour, and then we were lucky enough to watch José Luis Guerin’s In the City of Silvia. Following the screening Ryland initiated an email conversation with me and Jennifer. Ryland’s initial email and Jennifer’s response can be found on his blog. You might want to read them first to pick up on the thread of conversation – though it helps even more to have seen the film.]
Hi Ryland and Jen,I guess I’ll live up to the blogger stereotype offered by Kent Jones in his answer to my question during the Hoberman interview and offer more fragmented responses than a thoughtful cohesive reply. But this is not to say that Kent has us pegged – like I assume you were, Ryland, I was nonplussed by his focusing on the negatives of blog social behaviors (trolling, escalating shouting matches, etc) without equal description given to what’s good about this forum. Maybe it’s the product of having engaged in online discussions for several years, but I pretty much have developed a filter to extended ranting and dead end discussions and can move on to find better stuff elsewhere. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about and practice the same casual scrutiny – it’s pretty much a must-have skill if one spends extended periods looking for useful content online, at least until some 15 year old in a basement concocts a filter for this. I’d pay.
On to the film – I have to agree you Ryland that as a work about the cinematic properties about the mere act of looking and existing in the world, this film is hard to beat. And perhaps making the protagonist this sketchy, borderline sociopathic guy is a way of ensuring that we as viewers maintain a gaze that is ours and not closely aligned with that of anyone in the film, and that we get to partake in our own journey of making meaning as Artist Man does. I just wish it would rely on something other than the tried and true Suffering, Intense, Misunderstood Young Male Artist pining relentlessly after his Idee Fixe – and what if the roles had been replaced, if this film had been about an intense young woman artist gazing at different men before stalking an Ideal? Would it have been a different film; would audiences have reacted differently? For some reason I find that far more exciting a prospect for a film. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way – as soon as I finished watching Broken Flowers I wished the Bill Murray character had been played by a woman (Sharon Stone? Tilda Swinton?) journeying through her past flings to find the father of her grown child. How much do these casting and gender issues matter in one’s pursuit and appreciation of “pure cinema”, a label which this film no doubt aspires to claim for itself? There’s no clear answer, but for me it most definitely got in the way.
It gets in the way of credibility – funny because we were discussing this very issue on the way into the theater, I think referring to one of Jen’s students writing about how a film didn’t work because they didn’t believe in the plot – a tricky and not wholly fruitful basis for an argument, you both seemed to suggest. And yet things like that can and do throw one out of a film. Look at how Ideal Girl finally confronts Intense Young Artist on the train. She was gracious beyond belief, to the point where she was strongly suggesting that she wants his attention and for him to keep pursuing her. And I’m like, who the fuck is this chick, if not some projection of a male masochistic fantasy of how such an encounter would play out. There’s no real dialogue, no depth to the girl’s character – sure, she’s not the girl he was looking for, but that disruption is not nearly as important as the one that would cause him to be jolted from his mental onanism.
I have to wonder if this film offers a wish fulfillment of its own, one radically different on an aesthetic level from the increasingly maligned Judd Apatow, but startlingly similar in its regressive pursuit of male fantasy, accompanied by an objectifying idealization and willfull alienation of the opposite sex. (btw I scanned those YouTube clips of Sylvia to see if any of them had a shot of “Laure Je T’aime” scrawled on the walls – I would love to match those with “I’m so over you Sarah Marshall!!!” Same difference?)
So as much as I love to celebrate cinema, I don’t dare to conflate cinema as solipsism. There’s plenty of that going around that we don’t need the movies to serve as enablers, no matter how masterful they are. But I guess the difference between your view and mine is how much we align the man’s perspective with the film’s, how much it acknowledges the danger of solipsism inherent in its protagonist as opposed to glorifying his gaze, and how much of that solipsism refracts onto the film itself, despite its attempt to celebrate the variety of human existence – is it still a one way mirror?
Jen, those moments you mention when the gaze is returned is really the heart of the film’s mystery for me, because that is the locus of the kind of disruption from the monadic existence I’m advocating. It’s where things get really interesting. But what does he really do with those pregnant seconds?
I read that Calvino novel many years ago (found a copy in China of all places) and enjoyed it very much. But I’m not sure how much it parallels this film, if only because the Calvino had a very disjunctive structure whereas this film seems to flow from one moment into the next through a continuous way of looking.
I think him hitting on that girl and sleeping with her amounts to an attempt to reject his past following that humiliating debacle on the train. But it fails because the next day he’s at the train stop looking for that girl who reminded him of Sylvia. It’s a really creepy moment the night he and that chick bed together and he’s staring at her so intently, as if trying desperately to drink in her beauty. Who knows if six years later he’ll be looking for her?
That lady with the disfigured face was no illusion – she takes off her sunglasses and there she is, an infeffable reproval of all the hot young ladies that, from this film, you’d think constituted 80% of the Parisian population.
Ultimately I’m not sure if this film subverts or overturns anything Mulvey wrote, or at least anything she wrote about Vertigo. It still plays to me as the scene where Scottie mistakes Judy for Madeleine, only extended to feature length.
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Special thanks to Dave McDougall, video producer and editor and host of the blog Chained to the Cinematheque, for his contributions to this video.
screened Wednesday April 13 2008 on Warner DVD in Brooklyn, NY
Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell’s follow-up to the infamous If… (TSPDT #567) stars McDowell as a fresh-faced young Candidean stumbling through a picaresque that sprawlingly catalogs the abuses and absurdities of all corners of 70s British society: provincial philistines staging miscegenation sex shows; scientists grafting pig parts to human guinea pigs; and a military industrial alliance enabling genocide overseas. Indeed, the only institution that seems to be depicted favorably is the prison where McDowell is indoctrinated into Marxist utopianism, only to be mauled upon his release by the homeless people he seeks to serve. Heavy on incident and yet somehow vague in insight, David Sherwin’s screenplay seems to depend heavily on the audience taking its wry depictions of widespread dystopia at face value to attain an aura of verity. For his part Anderson maintains a snarkily buoyant tone to the proceedings, aided by Alan Price’s running commentary song score and various metacinematic gestures to keep things teasingly playful, such as casting actors in multiple roles and having Price and his band appear midway. The finale involves a casting session with McDowell’s character for the very film in which he just starred, climaxing into a New Agey epiphany followed by a dance-a-long precursor to the ending of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The performances by the multi-tasking ensemble are uniformly convincing in conveying a societal landscape of alluring menace; watching them it’s easy to be caught up in the skill by which they inhabit and skewer their roles, though the lingering feeling of cynicism following the proceedings may wear differently on a given viewer.
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Now that I’ve outed myself as a cinema advocate, I’d better get around to promoting a couple of DVDs representing the best of the perpetually underappreciated cinema of Africa. Yes, these DVDs were produced by my girlfriend so there is some self-interest involved here, but if anyone’s seen my reviews of these films from their debuts on the festival circuit, they will know that I’ve loved these movies from the start.
To wit, here’s my review of the late Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade, from the 2004 New York Film Festival:
The man who helped create the African cinema, now age 81, takes a confident step towards reaching the wide audience he deserves, by making a feel-good movie about female genital mutilation. This is one of several contradictions Sembene is somehow able to pull off: on the surface this seems like the kind of politically correct, culturally exotic pap that Miramax would drop on arthouses all over America. But as atrractive and accessible as the film is, there is a lot of intriguing subtext to be explored, centered firmly on a passionate dialogue concerning the role of women in the tug of war between African cultural traditions and post-colonial modernity, between women getting circumcised in the name of chastity and getting men to put on condoms and stick with one wife. There’s a stunning array of remarkable imagery, from the colorful bric-a-brac of a trader’s makeshift outpost to a burning heap of radios set fire in the heat of fundamentalist fervor; it rivals the likes of JOHNNY GUITAR in making forceful, lyric poetry out of community turmoil.
There is a kind of “Making of” featurette running almost 25 minutes – a solid extras along with an insightful Sembene interview on disc 1 for about the same length of time. There is some African premier footage from 2004 in Burkina Faso. Three short actresses interviews (Maïmouna Hélèn Diarra, Lala Drabo, and Aminata Dao) running 10 minutes in total. Some haunting discussions on Female Genital Mutilation and even a competent 16-page liner notes booklet (interview with Sembene by Professor Samba Gadjigo of Mount Holyoke College etc.). Good job with the supplements NY’er.
I edited the premier footage, the actress interviews and the discussion on mutilation. If you buy the DVD you are free to tell me how poor a job I did on the cut.
Just released last week is Abdherrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, a film that has silently crept up with time and reflection to become one of my very favorite films of the decade. Apparently I won’t be the only one name-checking it when the top 10 lists start coming out around the end of next year – Philip French of the Guardian recently plugged it as one of the best of the decade and 50 best of the last 50 years; and Ken Russell placed it on his top ten list of all time. Here are a couple of excerpts from my review for the House Next Door:
What if Al Gore had made Bamako? This is not an absurd or unfair comparison to make. Say what you will about An Inconvenient Truth as a work of cinema, but that slideshow-on-celluloid has proven incredibly effective at galvanizing the cause against global warming. Poverty in Africa could benefit from such a forceful argument (much more so than from celebrity coverage of African orphan adoptions or Hollywood action movies set in Sierra Leone) to more readily enter the public consciousness. Alas, we cannot say that Abderrahmane Sissako‘s Bamako is interested purely in inspiring action against Africa’s victimization at the hands of foreign debt. The film, which stages a fantasy trial against international monetary organizations for their victimization of Africans in a perpetual state of poverty, seems rhetorical by design. But there is a deeper and more troubling argument being made here. The film does as much to resist its rhetoric as to support it. What emerges is a grander agenda: not just reclaiming Africa’s economic well-being, but its very sense of self.
For anyone who cares about what movies have to do with our lives, this, to me, is where the real action of the movie lies. Bamako amounts to a referendum on contemporary cinematic practices and their effect in addressing a problem as complex as that portrayed. The film is both cagey and contemplative about how to even depict this plight: a young man testifies to how he and a group of fellow migrants barely survived crossing the Saharan desert, leaving one young woman to die. His testimony is sullen and flat and frankly rather dull by conventional trial movie standards. But then Sissako cuts elliptically to a re-enactment of the young woman left lying among the blinding sands, surrounded by scavenger beetles — an image horrifying in its matter-of-factness. This is the only re-enactment of the many tragedies recounted over several testimonies and, while watching it, you first wonder why Sissako doesn’t resort to it more often. But a moment like this doesn’t so much drive a point home as ask a question: “Is this what I have to show to make you care?” There are very few films whose approaches are so thoroughly founded on the notion of cinema as an ethical dilemma.
New Yorker’s disc of Bamako is a beautiful enhanced transfer with a sharp image and glowing colors. The audio track is clear and bright and removable English subtitles. The languages spoken on-screen are French and Bambara. The film’s emotional, catchy song is Naam by Christy Azuma & Uppers International. Director Abderrahmane Sissako takes lead position in a number of interviews. Sissako talks about his background as a film student and his commitment to the politics of his country. Actor and executive producer Danny Glover details his involvement in the project. The most inspiring of the other spokespeople is Gita Sen, a vibrant woman with great communication skills and non-confrontational political talking points.
Cindi and I filmed Gita and she is indeed a great speaker, delivering a forceful monologue on Third World debt’s devastating effects on everyday people in just one take! We also worked on an interview with Yao Graham of Third World Network- Africa, a pan-African research and advocacy organisation based in Accra, Ghana.
Anyhow, please seek these discs out, as they are, without qualification, essential films of the decade and essential African films of all time.
“If we can’t help sell tickets for movies that we love, then what is the point of all this writing? Such has, and continues to be, the lot of the work of art criticism in the age of commerce, which only means that those who take it upon themselves to write need to shout louder as urgency increases.”
– Jeff Reichert, from review of The New World, published in Reverse Shot
Before I succumb any further to the distractions of the working stiff, let me wrap up my coverage of the Moving Image Institute and post some reflections on the responses of my and others’ coverage received in the past week.
First, I neglected to report on one of the highlights of Day 3, the panel and dinner with Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris. Karina Longworth has already issued a fine report on the session; I’m especially appreciative of her recalling the part of the conversation when we younger critics lamented missing the golden era of film culture when cinephiles would congregate at a cafe following an evening screening and passionately discuss the film they just saw, leading Haskell to dispel us of our manufactured nostalgia. As I listened to them recall their epic disputes with Pauline Kael and affiliations with major critics such as Susan Sontag, John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann, I reflected on an observation that kept resurfacing throughout the program, being just how New York-centric arthouse film culture is, and was; indeed it may have been even more insularly Gothamic back in Sarris’ heyday than it is now in the age of the internet.
On the other hand, Thursday’s visit to the New York Times building to meet the newspaper’s film editorial staff may have offered the counter-argument that all things of cultural relevance must emanate from Times Square, though I’m afraid I can’t say more since the meeting was off the record (personally I don’t think anything discussed was terribly proprietary). Much has been made of the perceived antagonism between print institutions like the Times and the blog-barians storming their gates. As rousing as these posts and discussions have been, let’s cut to the chase: in three years this isn’t even going to be an issue. While I won’t divulge any details of what was discussed at the Times meeting I think it’s fair to say that they are as anxious as any blogger about securing their audience in a sea of competing critical voices. They certainly have more at stake to lose (7% of Times newsroom staff laid off so far this year). I wouldn’t be surprised if soon we’ll see A.O. Scott chatting up the reader comments section beneath his reviews or even visiting other blogs if the Powers That Be become further ensconced in the current Web 2.0 wisdom that community in addition to content is what sells online.
The point is that the rules are changing and everyone is trying make sense of a shifting landscape, with radical implications for how culture will be generated and disseminated. So yes, I think the field is leveling out, for better or worse. I see little point in being resentful about how bloggers are being perceived now, when the door is wide open to define what blogging should be about. Filmbrain left a comment on my last report that ponders this question of where online film criticism is going. Meanwhile, while we’re busy debating the relative merits of blog critics, someone has just issued another great, thought-provoking piece for all of us to enjoy; may I suggest we direct our attention to the real action?
Not a whole lot to report about the afternoon session at Sony Pictures Classics that wasn’t already touched on by the earlier panel of film distributors and publicists. I suppose that here would be an apt place to reply to a comment that was left on my last report, suggesting that the Moving Image Institute was subsuming film criticism to the needs of the industry (or to put it less tactfully, that the participants were being converted into marketing shills). I can fully appreciate the commenter’s concerns, and indeed there was at least one item of feedback raised on the last day of the program that there hadn’t been enough discussion on the art and craft of film writing. The sessions with the company reps and even the filmmakers amounted to being more industry shop talk than about fostering a deeper appreciation for how to write more knowingly about movies (though filmmaker/cinematographer Ellen Kuras offered some helpful pointers on how critics could be more sensitive to the pictorial aspects of a film). On the other hand, even a dyed-in-the-wool formalist critic like David Bordwell would tell you that an understanding of how the movie business works is essential to having a comprehensive, well-informed perspective from which to write about films. If that’s what the Institute had to offer this year, it still amounted to a lot to take in, much of it soberingly stark in what it had to say about arthouse film, and not just as an industry, but as a culture, that in some respects, seems on the brink of exile into a virtual, digital corner of society.
This is where my point about the film critic as advocate and activist comes in, a point that the commenter picked up as part of his criticism of what he though the Institute was trying to do to its participants. The blog post and the comment actually sparked a lengthy discussion among the participants about the role of the film critic in relation to the community. There was some back and forth about what the word “advocate” entailed in relation to criticism, and a weird continuum seemed to emerge: one that had a highbrow intellectual writing hermetically rigorous tomes for a handful of self-selecting, appreciative readers on one end of the spectrum, and a studio-fed blurbwhore on the other. Maybe I like to have it both ways, but if I were to end up being an intellectual blurbwhore who could write about challenging cinema in such away that it engaged a mass audience, well at least there would be a respectable precedent. Say what you will about Roger Ebert’s thumbing-down of criticism, but there was a time when he could make Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers appeal to fans of The Exorcist by drawing bold, inspired, and compelling comparisons of the two films’ treatment of horror, existential as well as corporeal. This is what I mean by advocacy, activism, and just plain great film criticism: smart, intrepid and engaging.
The greater problem looming at present is that there are now fewer print outlets than ever for an Ebert to issue his exhortations to a mass readership to see films they otherwise wouldn’t know or care about. This choking off of film criticism from these major publicity channels couldn’t come at a worse time, when the economics of independent film distribution are becoming increasingly dire for distributors and especially filmmakers. In the face of such circumstances, how can a film writer who cares about the future of their beloved medium not see themselves as an advocate, and act accordingly?
And if the most energetic writing about film is taking place online, is that enough for us to see results in the non-virtual world? Peter Noble-Kuchera and Doug Cummings lamented the lack of in-person alt-film communities in Indiana and Los Angeles (!), while Jette Kernion shared observations on the thriving film culture in Austin. In an age where even I, in New York, am more likely to discuss film online than in person, how much does having a localized community matter? But more to the point: if discussions of film are increasingly being relegated to specialized online spaces than in general interest news outlets with a broader readership, then are we being consigned to a cultural ghetto? If so, I’m not sure if this is what I signed up for. As much as I love movies, as much as they matter to me, I also want the movies I love to matter.
Of course the counter-argument was made that one’s loves shouldn’t be imposed on a larger audience, to each his own and all that, but in light of a specialty market film industry that’s more or less in crisis, and a film culture that seems to be in the midst of being shuttled to the wings, I think that taking such a position is a luxury that the our film culture can no longer afford, if it ever could have.
I will cite one instance of the kind of film programming that is achieving the results I’m talking about: the summer outdoor cinema series sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image in my beloved Astoria, Queens. As bold in its curatorial selections as it is welcoming to the general public, this free series programs an unexpectedly off-beat lineup of films from countries representing the rich ethnic diversity of the Queens community: Brazil, Japan, India, from Bollywood to Ousmane Sembene. And it works, drawing crowds not just from the highlighted ethnic communities but from a wide range of people, including people who wouldn’t be inclined to see an arthouse film save that it was a free way to spend some time catching a movie in the open summer night air. Judging by the ongoing success of the series, it seems the majority doesn’t regret it.
So yes, tar and feather me a populist – but not so much in my tastes in film as in my vision of film culture. My position was only reinforced on the final session of the Institute, a panel on digital technology that did less to tie film culture to the digital realm (and really, this topic deserves its own day, not just a single panel, if we’re to make this a forward-looking program) than to draw parallels with other media. For instance, in a discussion on gaming, Heather Chaplin and Ed Halter described how avant garde game designers were creating difficult to the point of unplayable games that provoked players into a more conscious appreciation of the form and artistry of video game design – not dissimilar, Halter maintained, from what avant garde or arthouse filmmakers do with cinema. When Chaplin recalled how one group of such gamers, eager to expose their work to a larger audience, struck up a deal to have their games sold at Target, this led to an argument about the meaning of such a gesture to the work’s aesthetic and cultural relevance. Halter’s counter-argument invoked Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a filmic corollary to the type of anti-commercial stance he espoused: “Weerasethakul doesn’t make his movies with the intention of reaching a broad audience. He just has something very personal and unique to express for whoever wants to experience it.”
Now I love Apichatpong Weerasethakul as much as the next guy (well I probably love him a lot more than the next guy, since the next guy doesn’t even know who he is), but I don’t see how keeping him close to one’s vest does cinema a service. It may be the filmmaker’s prerogative not to care how much of an audience he will garner, but I feel that the critic has a different imperative, a different role to play in society, assuming that he cares about society. Maybe that’s what it comes down to. Those who disagree with me make arguments amounting to “art for art’s sake” irregardless of its function within greater society (except as the obstinate margin against which the mainstream is defined – or vice versa). But when it gets to the point that one argues that neither artist nor critic have a duty to even make their work understood to a larger populace – well I was kind of relieved when another participant floated the word “elitism” to describe the position Halter was advocating, lest I felt compelled to utter it myself. When I spoke with Halter after his presentation, he used a different word – “separatist” – to describe his position, and when he argued against the old-school universalist theory that promotes a dominant mode of art and culture at the expense of others, I had to agree with him in part – and in fact the blogosphere is one of the major avenues that is demolishing this hegemony of the mainstream, while at the same time connecting smaller pockets of discourse where they would have never encountered each other before.
I would have loved to have more of these kinds of discussions brushing right up against the earlier, industry-centered panels instead of bringing up the rear of the program. As heady and difficult as they are, these conversations bring us into a larger, more philosophical realm of understanding the purpose of film criticism in the world we live in and what roles we have to serve. It was a fine way to end the Moving Image Institute and return back into the real world with a renewed sense of purpose, a perspective I hope to carry with me as I continue to work through my self-appointed role of cinema advocate. And if that sounds pretentious (or even “elitist”?), I don’t think it does if enough people join in. Like the best of the web, it’s an open source platform.
I’m still experimenting with different online video services to find the most optimal quality platform – currently I have settled on veoh. In the event that the embedded player doesn’t work on your browser, please find the video via this YouTube link.
Special thanks to Paolo Cherci Usai, director of the feature film Passio (2007), director of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, and founder of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival for lending his insightful commentary to this video.
Frank Borzage’s most celebrated film (winner of three of the inagural Academ Awards, including best director and actress) envisions romantic love as the ultimate absolution for a sewer cleaner (Charles Farrell) and a prostitute (Janet Gaynor). Borzage was one of the pioneers of envisioning spirituality onscreen, not with winged cherubs or beams of light, but through a thoroughly cinematic mastery of time suspended: masterful long takes and leisurely cuts that allow the presence of the screen to saturate to the point that it pours from the frame. This is especially true with the famous interludes in Farrell’s top floor slum apartment with a window facing towards a cityscape that seems to be a projection of a poor man’s daydream, and where Farrell and Gaynor seem to spend an ecstatic eternity discovering each other. Gaynor’s raw, spontaneous expressiveness match perfectly with Borzage’s insistence on perpetual innocence prevailing through unspeakable loss. On paper this is an archetypal Hollywood romance, especially in its unabashed childlike sentimentality, but the uncompromising conviction of Borzage’s vision gives the film an integrity that can be emotionally devastating.
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“Is this akin to an off-off Broadway community where everyone attends everyone else’s shows?”
This line is the one that has stayed with me the most after three intense days of presentations and discussions at the Moving Image Institute. It was uttered by Matt Zoller Seitz of The House Next Door during a group panel on film websites and blogs, one of the most engaging sessions thus far. Seitz made the statement in reference to the film blog community, where it seems that everyone blogs to an audience of fellow bloggers. But with successive presentations by print critics, distributors and filmmakers, this perception of insularity seems to apply not just to online cinephiles, but to the entire indie and art film industry in the United States. Needless to say, it has left me in search of answers, or at least a better articulation of the questions.
But first, back to Saturday morning’s panel with Seitz, Eugene Hernandez of IndieWire, Michael Koresky of Reverse Shot and S.T. Van Airsdale of The Reeler and Defamer. As one might expect of a panel on bloggers, this session featured the most free-wheeling discussion during the Institute, with Seitz issuing sharp critiques of the print journalism industry (ironic since he was the only member of the panel who writes for a print publication). He launched his blog The House Next Door three years ago simply as a platform for him to make a prolonged argument on behalf of Terrence Malick’s The New World in response to derisive remarks made towards the film on other websites. A small following of young partisans convened on his blog and began offering opinionated and thoughtful pieces on many other movies as well as television shows, and a community was thus formed that by Seitz’ count now receives 4,500 views a day. His site is open to submissions from any writer on content of varying lengths and formats, a flexibility that he considers an advantage of online journalism over print (“Where do you print editors get off with your sense of superiority if you won’t let your writers write as openly as we [bloggers] do?”) He also values the instant interactive element of online writing for “returning human communication to its natural state, ” citing that the large-scale national syndication of the press and corresponding erosion of local media over the past 30 years has taken the sense of community out of print journalism, only to relocate it online. Seitz even asserted that the blogosphere takes media back to a pre-professional era when hardboiled, streetwise reporters (Sam Fuller, anyone?) gave journalism a certain flavor and vitality lost on subsequent generations of white collar graduates.
The enterprising spirit was shared among the other panelists. Hernandez started IndieWire back in the mid-90s as a e-newsletter mass-mailed to 300 recipients; now it’s grown to a site of over a million unique visitors. Van Airsdale started The Reeler blog and, after some nurturing under the IndieWire blog network, launched it as its own site, offering exhaustive coverage of the New York film scene. Koresky started Reverse Shot as an online emulation of leading film criticism magazine Film Comment; like The House Next Door, it has become a nexus for young writers to submit thoughtful pieces on cinema. Of the four sites, only IndieWire has the funds to compensate its contributors, and despite these sites being a source of free publicity for films, some of their writers are shunted from press screenings. When the elephant-in-the-room question was raised about what distinguishes a paid critic from an unpaid critic, the discussion sidestepped into a somewhat related binary between professional vs. amateur criticism, leaving me to conclude that with paid film writing gigs shriveling away, both distinctions are moot.
Our first filmmaker guests, Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) and Tom Kalin (Swoon and the upcoming Savage Grace) offered their share of war stories from all stages of production and distribution – my favorite being that some conservative viewers disliked Old Joy because they found the very premise that a person like Will Oldham’s character might exist repugnant. Also, overheard by Reichardt after a screening: “I didn’t make the movie, I just invited you to see it!” Their visit was aptly succeeded by the representatives of their respective distributors, Don Krim of Kino (Old Joy) and Ryan Werner of IFC Films (Savage Grace), who continued a running theme of the sessions: that if a specialty market film doesn’t get a glowing front page review on the New York Times, then it basically is a doomed release. This has long been the case, but perhaps moreso than ever with local coverage of films decreasing or focusing only on Hollywood releases (for example, the largest Washington DC newspaper did not review Jacques Rivette’s Duchess of Langeais due to their policy of reviewing only three releases per weekend). Nonetheless Werner shared a few anecdotes of creative marketing, such as “soft opening” a movie on a Wednesday instead of a Friday to minimize anticipated negative press, and extolled the recent success of Digital on Demand, which has delivered new IFC releases to over 50 million households without diluting the theatrical audience. Krim noted the importance of Netflix, which ordered nearly 10,000 copies of Old Joy, in keeping indie films viable in the digital market, and shared some preliminary designs for a slate of Blu-Ray releases.
On day three, cinematographer and director Ellen Kuras exhorted critics to display more appreciation of the non-theatrical elements of a movie by answering two simple questions in the course of a review: what is the “look” of a movie, and how is that look achieved? Kuras screened an excerpt of her upcoming documentary Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), as did director (and longtime film critic) Gerald Peary and producer Amy Geller of their documentary-in-progress on American film criticism, For the Love of Movies.
The latter included a provocative quote by Harry Knowles, uttered in response to the derision towards online and amateur film critics and bloggers: “If everyone can become a critic, that means critical thinking can spread.” While the logic of the statement is specious (the order of the clauses should be reversed), I applaud the democratic, outreaching spirit behind it, the kind of sentiment that I feel is somewhat underrepresented among the proceedings of the Institute thus far. It’s a pity that Bruce Goldstein, partner of Rialto Pictures and director of Film Forum, with his abundant energy and keen sense of community-building through cinema, couldn’t make his session. Each presenter has lent tremendous insight into their respective vocations and unique perspective on the industry as a whole. Still, I feel that a higher-level discussion has not yet taken place, something to the effect of “why are we doing this and what does it matter to others?” Hearing how many colleagues have risen to a common challenge of an industry in decline has been inspirational, even humbling. But there must be more than making the most of a bad situation; dare I say there has to be more than thinking about the problem in industry-defined terms. The distributors who presented all but admitted that, due to the demise of local media film coverage, theatrical markets outside New York City are a losing battle, and they have tailored their publicity efforts accordingly. These are defensive, cost-saving measures, but for the long term health of specialty cinema – not just as an industry, but as a vital part of our culture – more must be done. To this point it would have been great to connect with a film festival programmer, or even a grassroots media activist, someone whose mission is explicitly to make films connect with communities. Critics could learn a lot from such people in devising their own roles as advocates or activists (roles I consider essential for meaningful criticism), or even on the basic level of engaging a readership and getting them to watch (and think about) movies.
In coming up with some provisional answers to these challenges, I think back to two moments from the Institute. One is MOMI founding director Rochelle Slovin‘s opening remarks, challenging us to re-conceive what a museum that truly engages its visitors might look like as we walked through its kinesthetic exhibits. The second is film critic Molly Haskell in dinner conversation with Institute participants as well as her husband, fellow critic Andrew Sarris. (More on their presentation later.) At first she admitted to not following blogs, confessing to feeling overwhelmed by the abundance of online content and not knowing even where to start. Over the course of the dinner she eagerly jotted down each blogger participant’s site address as well as titles of films we recommended to her. It’s that kind of outgoing curiosity and enthusiasm to engage with new audiences that might get more attendees coming to our shows.
It’s bedtime and I’m nursing a headache that started last night after several rounds of drinks with fellow MII participants at three different venues (including the most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever partaken in, courtesy of the Carlyle Hotel, and two of the cheapest Maker’s Mark on the rocks courtesy of the Subway Inn bar), and continued today with my mind reeling from the hours of insightful discussions sparked by today’s presenters. It was understandable that several participants opted to spend tonight resting their brains instead of painting the town red for a second night, if only to digest the events of the day, herewith:
– After general intros among our esteemed participants, MOMI founding director Rochelle Slovin took the facility’s current renovation as an occasion to address the larger issue of what the purpose and function for the Museum (or any museum for that matter) should be. (To this point she referenced an essay that Stanley Cavell wrote for the Museum, “Collecting Thoughts on Collecting” which I now have on tap to read.) In planning the new museum, instead of such traditional museum practices – such as leading the visitor through a linear walking history tour; exhibiting a fetishistic regard for the artifact; and relying heavily on textual displays – she espouses a more progressive approach to curation. The hope is to foster a more interactive and participatory approach to the museum experience, as is already evidenced in some of the more recent installations currently found on the museum’s third floor, which we explored during a private tour (somewhere in the Museum there is now a flipbook printout of me doing the “Soulja Boy” dance captured by Rochelle herself).
– A.O. Scott joined us, digital ink still fresh on his fingers from another Friday’s worth of reviews. A number of assignments in our reading packet were Scott’s pieces from the Times, centering mostly on two themes: the role of the film critic (cf. an article on Roger Ebert in this Sunday’s Times) and the morality of film violence (cf. his review of Funny Games and a thought piece on Iraq War movies). Both issues converge in his provocative article regarding the 40-year legacy of Bonnie and Clyde, in which he speculates if the moral finger wagging towards the film by Scott’s forebear at the Times, Bosley Crowther (in a review that essentially cost Crowther his job) has proven itself surprisingly resurgent in a contemporary landscape that revels in gratuitous, unreflecting violence. When asked on the issue of engaging with reader comments and feedback, Scott lamented not having enough time, and then suggested that his response to reader feedback might intimidate and discourage further activity in what he seemed to designate as the readers-only section. As a sporadic-at-best participant in my own blog, I can definitely relate to the first alibi – but the second seems to misapprehend the social dynamic afforded us by blog culture, a democratic dynamic that perhaps to some degree is irreconcilable with the self-positioning of the Times as a bastion of cultural authority (despite Scott’s statement elsewhere in his talk that his reviews shouldn’t be taken that way). But who knows how that may change as newspapers are increasingly weakened and anxious to retain readership. To this end I congratulated Scott and the Times movie section for their video reviews, especially the videos Scott & Co. produced on Romanian cinema.
– Following lunch we enjoyed a spirited discussion with four stars of the NYC film publicity world: Harris Dew of IFC Center (currently promoting my beloved Flight of the Red Balloon), Julia Fontaine of Miramax (still fresh off the success of No Country for Old Men), Susan Norget of Susan Norget Film Promotion (also involved with Flight), and Cynthia “Oscarnator” Swartz of 42West Media and benefactress of many a winning Oscar campaign (one word: Crash). As they shared their success stories, you could sense how much they savored their every hit, sometimes flying in the face of common-sense industry skepticism (most recently, IFC’s remarkable run with Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days). They touched on numerous nuances to the publicity game: Swartz had a memorable anecdote about de-emphasizing Helen Mirren on ads for The Queen in order to make the movie bigger than its star performance and thus a more attractive Best Picture candidate, while Norget shared her ingenuity in getting films featured in the Metro section or other sections of the New York Times as a more visible alternative to a small review in the Arts section.
– Finally, legendary film distributor Bingham Ray, formerly of October Films and United Artists and now with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, shared a number of war stories, from using Siskel and Ebert’s “two thumbs down” review to promote David Lynch’s Lost Highway (TSPDT #766) to his struggles last year to find the right audience for Lars and the Real Girl (“the most unsexy movie ever made with a sex doll.”) He lamented the passing of an era when films could enjoy a prolonged release in the hopes that word-of-mouth would work its magic (his inaugural release with October, Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, would have folded the company had the film not received three National Society of Film Critics awards three months into the film’s 1990 release). But his upbeat nature was infectious (he takes pride in the fact that Lost Highway is being taught in film schools now even though it lost money for him), and while tough times are all around for serious filmmakers and producers as well as critics, there are all the more opportunities to face the present challenges creatively.
In retrospect, I kind of wish the afternoon panels focused more on how they were utilizing online film culture to promote their films, if only so that I and other online-centric participants could develop a stronger understanding of the role we play. They all expressed regret at the loss of so many film critics in recent weeks and the ill effects this bears on their prospects to get the word out on their films. They also agreed that while print reviews still held a tremendous amount of clout, much of the action was shifting to online discussions and blogs in generating ground-level buzz for a film. Perhaps they are as unsure as we are as far as where this is all going.
Tomorrow promises to be just as good if not better, with a director of one of the great American indie films of the decade, two stalwarts of the indie distribution world, four young upstarts of online film journalism, and a living legend of American film criticism… this time I’ll bring my camera.
The Live at Grassroots podcast I recorded a couple weeks ago with House Next Door contributors Keith Uhlich, Vadim Rizov, John Lichman and filmmaker Preston Miller is now live on the HND site. Among the discussion topics are Nathan Lee’s firing from the Village Voice and the tempest in a teapot that was stirred up on Dave Kehr’s blog in response to my liveblogging coverage of the NYU Film Criticism Workshop.
Click here to listen or right click to download the mp3.