Sunday, August 29, 2010

Film Festivals

Recently I've been wondering: How have film festivals slowly changed in the last decade or two? And what are things that a good film festival ought to be doing?

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) kicks off in a couple of weeks. I've attended it continuously for the last twelve years. The festival has changed markedly over this time. The number of commercially high-profile "galas" and "special presentations" has shot up. The size of the "Masters" program -- where the festival puts its best, most highly regarded narrative art films -- has shrunk dramatically. Even more distressingly, programs devoted to retrospectives of single filmmakers or particular national cinemas have been more or less eliminated. In fact, the festival now shows almost only new films: anything that isn't contemporary, anything that lacks the sheen of novelty, has disappeared from the festival's horizon. The only exception to this gradually escalating corporatization of TIFF has been the avant-garde program Wavelengths, helmed by Andréa Picard, who has guided it from strength to strength in recent years.

I hasten to add: the festival still shows a healthy number of good films. It's the one week of the year that I look forward to the most. Nevertheless, there's no denying that the changes at TIFF have, over the years, weakened the festival in certain crucial ways.

The book Dekalog 3, edited by Richard Porton, is a valuable recent collection that takes film festivals as its subject. One of the pieces is a terrific conversation between James Quandt and veteran film curator and festival director Simon Field, who observes:

...Toronto, whether it likes it or not, has got caught up in marketing procedures, particularly of Hollywood but also of the independent American cinema machine. Some of the auteurist emphases of the older festival have begun to get lost [...] In the time I've been coming, it has become a much bigger machine, emphasizing more and more its premieres. It's become much more self-conscious about being one of the most important festivals in the world; it's more preoccupied with its own rhetoric, celebrating its rhetoric. [...]

In the Netherlands, there's what they call the 'sandwich process', how you use bigger films to get audiences to support your festival and its smaller -- but equally important -- films. [...] In Toronto it has begun to affect the tone of the festival and one of its roles, a role of which much is made here, to educate and inform, and the problem is how to maintain that balance when, for instance, all films are described as fabulous, and when some parts of the festival disappear beneath an overcrowded program. The noise of the 'upper' part of the festival [the more commercial part] drowns out other areas. When you get the feeling that rhetoric, and the marketers have taken over, you begin to be concerned that the marginal films aren't at the centre of anyone's interest.

Toronto's moving away from showing non-contemporary cinema and its reluctance to invest in bodies of work -- instead featuring strings of individual films -- are blatantly market-oriented moves. They bank on novelty, but also, they look to diversify financial risk, distributing it among a slate of disparate single films rather than showing groups of films, like an entire Kiyoshi Kurosawa retrospective or a Turkish cinema sidebar, both programs I enjoyed there several years ago, when the festival operated under a somewhat different economic model.

For me personally, a good film festival -- let alone one with a great, global reputation like Toronto -- should do much more than simply show a bunch of new films. A good film festival should also be an event that enriches film culture in substantive and imaginative ways, and provides educational opportunities for the public to deepen their appreciation of this prodigiously diverse and rich medium. In his remarks to Quandt, Simon Field adds:

Should festivals have a stronger educational role? If you have a Resnais, a Michael Mann, a Costa or Diaz, and you're showing a plurality of cinema, how are you backing that up with ways to help people understand it? When I did the Ernie Gehr focus at Rotterdam, he started off doing the standard American-style Q&A -- waiting for questions, and then he realized that a lot of people in the audience didn't have a clue about how to approach his films. I don't know what the answer to that is. There's a danger with a very plural festival that you'll never help people engage with that kind of cinema because you're too busy showing films [...] you also need to help people understand the films. That's becoming more difficult because there's just this mass of stuff.

So, if you were to design your dream film festival, what might it look like? Mine would include films old and new, packaged into stimulating, often counter-intuitive programs; panels, lectures and workshops featuring critics, scholars and filmmakers; and a keen curiosity about film and film culture from all eras and countries. True, that sounds utopian, but I also believe that it's not essential that all film festivals in the world follow the same economic model and be driven by the same objectives.

I'm curious to hear from you: How do you think film festivals are changing? Are there good models for film festivals out there, models that don't simply and unimaginatively enslave themselves to capitalist imperatives? Are there festivals with significant critical influence (like, for a period, the Buenos Aires festival under Quintin's leadership) that care not just about showing individual films but also about film culture, film discourse and education? Any other thoughts on the film festivals of yesterday and today? I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Watching Films, Keeping Notes

Ignatiy and I were chatting recently on my Facebook page about "writing process"; I thought I'd open up this conversation to all, and ask for your take on this topic.

As a "cinema person," I wear two hats. First, I'm a cinephile. I watch films -- usually several each week -- and these films range widely in period, country, genre, etc. The vast majority of these films are non-contemporary and most of my viewing is done on DVD. I keep a small "Moleskine" book, and try to spend at least 10 minutes taking a couple of pages of notes after each film. (I rationalize this discipline by telling myself: "If you can spend 2 hours watching a film, you can spend a tenth of the time scribbling some notes about it.") Rather than summarize plot or character, my notes, which are in bullet-point form, tend to record moments and details (like the "small striking moments" we talked about here a few weeks ago) and any ideas that they may spark. When I revisit these cryptic notes a few weeks, months or years later, I'm always startled by how much of importance and interest I forget about a film. More than anything, these notes serve to refresh my memory of the film and the ideas generated by my encounter with it.

And then there's the public, "critic" side of me that works on various writing projects -- blog posts, essays for magazines, journals or books, conference presentations, etc. For these, I create collage-like notes, some of them extensive, and then mine them during the writing process. After a piece is done, I trash the sheaf of notes (although perhaps I should be filing them away somewhere).

Finally, I keep another little notebook, a sort of "reading/writing journal," in which I record, each day, in fragmentary form, ideas, quotations, personal reminders to investigate certain films, books, etc., and all manner of bric-a-brac that I may want to use or develop, or avenues that I may want to chase down someday. I also have a section in it devoted to possible seeds for future pieces.

Ignatiy, in his blog post "68 Sentences," illustrates an alternative approach. The post is a montage of sentences, all originally hand-written in his notebooks. Rather than creating two distinct sets of writings (one comprised of private notes, the other crafted explicitly for public view), his writing process seems to bridge the gap between the two. He said on my Facebook page:

I'm not really an essay or even a paragraph writer -- I think I work in a weird sort of film production mode, where a topic is an excuse to produce dozens of sentences that I then assemble in a sort of editing [...] A lot of things I'll finish will include sentences or maybe whole paragraphs that were cut from previous things (and followers of the blog who also read my stuff for Mubi will notice posts, re-worked, appearing months later in completely different contexts). Further: there are many essays that were never finished that I have been cannibalizing for ideas / sentences for a long time...

I'd like to ask cinephiles and critics: Do you take notes upon seeing each film? If so, what form do they take? And what function/purpose might they serve for you? I think it might be illuminating and fun to compare our individual -- and sometimes unusual -- approaches to this ordinary, everyday (but nevertheless valuable) task.

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Recent reading:

-- James Quandt's tribute to Eric Rohmer at Artforum.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay-post "Listomania."

-- Chris Fujiwara on the notion of "contemporary cinema" at n+1.

-- Matt Zoller Seitz on "3-D's radical, revolutionary potential" at Salon.

-- Mark Rappaport on the "Sirk-Hudson connection" at the Criterion website.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Rebirth of MOVIE

Great news for film criticism: The legendary British magazine Movie has been reborn -- online. The first issue of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism is now available in its entirety at the University of Warwick website. The issue kicks off with a wonderful tribute by V.F. Perkins to one of the prime movers behind the original Movie, Ian Cameron, who died a few months ago.

The origins of Movie, Perkins writes, can be traced back to Oxford in the late 1950s, to film society program notes penned by Cameron. This led to his writing and editing film criticism in the student magazine Oxford Opinion. Cameron recruited others to write for the film section, and they developed a collective agenda that was

strongly polemical, taking one of its cues from the delightfully disdainful way in which month by month Cahiers received the output of the British film industry. (The respect accorded in Britain to The Bridge on the River Kwai was almost as galling to us the rejection of Vertigo.) Our wrath found a main target in the British Film Institute and its publications, Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin.

Using their cultural visibility as an Oxbridge publication, they attacked British film writing because it was

predictable in its judgments and predictable in putting judgments ahead of appreciation. It offered next to nothing that counted as analysis, where a verdict and an interpretation come with support from argument. The absence of an evidenced criticism was a particular affront to Ian's scientific sensibility.

It is this ethos of patient close analysis, this carefully considered appreciation of films grounded in descriptive detail that is the signal contribution of the Movie legacy to film criticism. The new Movie's continuity with its former self is readily seen in the way this ethos marks every piece in the new issue. For example, with the help of detailed attention to moments and texture, James MacDowell's essay develops the notion of a "quirky sensibility" found in many recent American movies. Kate Leadbetter's article contrasts the lead female characters of three Fassbinder films (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, Lola) in terms of physicality (movement and gesture) of the performances -- again with an intent focus on the moment-to-moment execution of those performances, aided by framegrabs. Lucy Fife Donaldson picks up the thread of a Movie round-table discussion from a 30-year-old issue, and weaves it into an argument about the way form and style function in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The rest of the issue features similarly substantive and satisfying film criticism. I eagerly await the issues to come.

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I'd like to take this opportunity to consider a larger topic: the history and impact of British film criticism. Narratives of film criticism have all too often privileged the French (the storied Cahiers du Cinema) or the Americans (the Sarris-Kael debates; the rediscovery and celebration of Manny Farber) but no such attention, adulation or myth-making has been visited upon the British. (I wonder why.) If, in the '60s, Sight & Sound and Movie represented two separate and distinct strands of British film criticism, it is the latter, I think, that has stood the test of time, remained the fresher, the more useful and substantive. This is particularly unusual given that a sizable portion of Movie criticism of the '60s focused on films from an earlier (studio) era of Hollywood. I suspect it's because Movie's critical principles, irrespective of writer or film, always dictated a detailed critical attention, an attempt to take hold of and fully account for form and style, connecting them to interpretation. The need for these principles is felt every bit as urgently in film criticism today as it was 50 years ago. (The key recent book-length work which demonstrates these principles at work, and features many Movie and Movie-influenced writers, is "Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film" (2005) edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye. It is a model work of close-analysis film criticism and interpretation.)

The influence and impact of Movie's early polemics can be seen even as recently as this week -- in Sight & Sound editor Nick James' online-only piece. He points to the end of the Miramax era, the drying up of support and funding for prestige, middlebrow, "quality" films (by "quality" he means the visibility of money and "good taste" on the screen). Films like Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient, which marked the apex of the Miramax era, were nothing more than recent equivalents of prestige fare like The Bridge on the River Kwai, championed by Sight & Sound in the 50s. In James' editorial, he positions the magazine against such a quality, middlebrow cinema and for a more personal and "poorer" cinema less worried about respectability. His call echoes that of V.F. Perkins in the early '60s in his essay on British cinema. (Please see this earlier post on Movie and British cinema.)

There is another aspect of the new Movie that interests me: the passage of time since its founding, and the institutionalization of film studies in the interim. In the early days of Movie, film studies didn't exist as a discipline, but in the '70s, many of its writers, like Robin Wood and V.F. Perkins, had begun working, part-time or full-time, in academe. However, in that post-'68 heyday of "Screen Theory," their work found itself in the margins of the discipline. And so, I wonder: To what extent has the new Movie been influenced by developments in the film studies discipline since? And in what ways is it providing an alternative, a corrective, to the predominant streams and methods of scholarship in film/media studies today?

Your thoughts on Movie old and new, British film criticism, and any related subjects? I'd love to hear them.

pic: Ian Cameron, 1937-2010, a founder of Movie. The Guardian obituary is by Charles Barr.