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.