“When I see a film and I like it, I want to share my enthusiasm for it with others. There is so little in this modern commercial world that is really and truly exciting…that it’s very important for me that those little fragments of beauty, of Paradise, are brought to the attention of friends and strangers equally.” – Jonas Mekas
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The Itinerant Cinephile is currently on hiatus, as I finish a book project. Stay tuned!
Issue 14 | Winter/Spring 2016 (Cambridge, MA)
Movies at Home
Although I conceived this blog as a chronicle of my itinerant movie-going, having devoted the previous issue to bemoaning the festival fatigue incurred during my seven weeks on the road last summer, lately my thoughts have wandered (as I have) to watching movies closer to home. Because my route through academe has been circuitous, I’ve called a number of places home (especially in the last few years), and having to acclimate to new cities has made me ever more grateful for the familiarity and emotional comfort that quality theaters provide a wandering cinephile like myself.
Growing up, there was one, and only one, theater that loomed large – and I’m glad to say it’s still looming, literally and figuratively, in my hometown and memory, despite its primary use as a performance venue these days. Atlanta’s Fox Theatre is one of those impeccably restored movie palaces truly grand to behold. As overture to every screening, the domed ceiling, lit with a LED rendering of the day and night skies, would brighten and dim to the organ’s playing of “Sunrise, Sunset” – a ritual that somehow managed (at least for this starry-eyed young cinephile) to transcend hokiness. It retains the record for most beautiful movie theater I’ve visited, and I’m fairly sure that’s not a rose-tinted remembrance (alas I wasn’t able to confirm this on my most recent trip back for last month’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference). Though for distressing reasons, The Fox legacy was just made richer still by the noted passing of its legendary Phantom as well as for having served as venue for Prince’s final two performances. (The Fox is commemorating the latter by opening its Summer 2016 season with Purple Rain, which promises to be on par with the singalong screening I attended last summer at the Midnight Sun Film Festival.)
Alas, given the Fox’s spotty programming and distance from my family’s neighborhood, it wasn’t an everyday – or even every month – outing, and most of my youthful movie-going was confined to characterless suburban multiplexes. None of those is worth mentioning, though I would be remiss in reminiscing about cinema culture in Atlanta without remarking on the Ted Turner-era CNN Center’s “quaint” custom of screening Gone with the Wind in its in-house theater…every day…all day. Only the memorial carvings to Confederate figures on Stone Mountain (and the nightly laser light show celebrating them) leaves my Yankee friends more aghast at Atlanta tradition.
I’ll forever feel guilty that I didn’t take greater advantage of New York’s cinemas during the two years I lived there, but I’ve attempted to make up for it since with each return trip. In my defense, I was already seeing a lot of films in class, as part of my master’s program in Cinema Studies, and as a graduate student my funding was limited. That led to my fulfilling the cinephile task/dare I set myself to watch a film per day largely from the perch of my apartment’s sofa, with programming provided by the New York Public Library’s DVD (and often VHS) collection. But certainly I also became a devotee of the cinematic offerings at Anthology Film Archives, Film Forum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (where I recently attended a memorable tribute to the tragically departed Chantal Akerman) and MoMA – also all still around, and complemented by a number of newcomers (IFC Center, Nighthawk Cinema, the newly-opened Metrograph) that testify to how NYC is doubling down on movies as a social experience. And while I’ll always lament arriving in New York too late to be a habitué of the cinemas that Woody Allen characters are forever going to (the Beekman, the Bleecker Street, the New Yorker, the Thalia), if those can’t be revived except through old movies I’m glad to learn of these restoration efforts to former movie palaces throughout the five boroughs.
My combined seven years in Los Angeles were probably my most immersive cinematically, both because it was my job (first as an industry underling, then as a Ph.D. candidate in film studies) and because the TV renaissance was not yet upon me/us. My favorite, by far, was and is the New Beverly Cinema, recently rescued from probable demise by Quentin Tarantino, though the appearance of Cinefamily towards the end of my West Coast tenure became and remains cause to rejoice. Both east and west side outposts – Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater and Santa Monica’s Aero Theater, respectively – of the American Cinematheque were also host to some memorable events, from William Friedkin regaling the audience with stories about the set of Sorcerer, to Grace Slick and Eric Burdon reminiscing post-Monterey Pop screening.
Even more prominent a feature of my L.A. existence than cinemas were video stores, on account of a couple years spent working at (now defunct) Rocket Video in Hollywood (regulars included Leonard Cohen and Faye Dunaway), then once a west sider several more years spent loyally patronizing Vidiots in Santa Monica. I’m dating myself in so admitting, but it wasn’t yet apparent how much of a last gasp those venues were (and of course few still survive). All told, the L.A. cinematic space I came to know most intimately was UCLA’s Bridges Theater, for it was where the majority of my course screenings were held and in fact served as the classroom where I led my first lecture course, on Hollywood Romantic Comedy – an intimidating room to command as a novice teacher, but beyond exciting for the opportunity it provided to project 35mm prints.
I did strangely little movie-going during my undergraduate study abroad year in London, and even less during my mid-twenties teaching abroad year in Thailand – less strangely, as I was hard-pressed to find non-dubbing cinemas there. The one professionally and emotionally trying year I spent in Bloomington, Indiana was made infinitely more bearable because of the Indiana University Cinema, where I was treated to my first encounter with Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive under optimal auditory conditions (those who know the film’s soundtrack will understand the importance of this), among many other noteworthy viewings.
I spent considerable space railing about the Philadelphia Film Festival’s shortcomings in the last issue, so I’ll keep my comments on the city’s cinemas short and (relatively) sweet. The general rule of thumb appears to be that you can have either a great venue or great programming , but not both – witness the Prince Theater’s resplendent interior but dearth (thus far) of film events, versus International House’s eclectic, excellent line-up regrettably confined to a drafty space with undersized screen and uncomfortable seats on risers. The city’s three Landmark cinemas are nothing to write home about and are curiously clustered within mere blocks of one another, but fortunately for me only a pleasant walk through charming Society Hill away.
To conclude with the city that, as anyone who knows me well can verify, feels most like home: Boston. Getting to spend the first half of 2016 here full-time, on a self-imposed albeit unpaid sabbatical, has been a godsend on many fronts (especially given the mild winter we’ve had). High on the list is getting to renew my status as a regular in Cambridge’s film haunts, and with my favorite film-going partner to boot. The Harvard Film Archive has provided me with countless inspiring cinematic events – highlights include Elaine May’s Q&A following Ishtar and Claire Denis presenting her early film U.S. Go Home – and is housed in the highly theatrical surrounds of the Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center. It’s a close call whether I’ve seen more films at the local Landmark chain theater, the Kendall Square, but without a doubt my most treasured Boston-area venue is Harvard Square’s historic Brattle Theatre. It’s a cozy, altogether unpretentious oasis for film-going, where just this winter I’ve had such disparate but equally wondrous experiences as a transcendent re-viewing of recently restored The American Friend alongside Magic Mike XXL playing to a full house almost entirely comprised of whooping and swooning women.
The auditorium space that passes as the Museum of Fine Arts’ cinema leaves something to be desired, and the Barry Lyndon screening I attended recently was marred by some annoying projection issues. Yet I’m grateful to their Film Program for hosting the annual French Film Festival as well as the LGBT film festival, newly rebranded as Wicked Queer. The highlight of the latter’s lineup last month was mesmerizing actress Izïa Higelin, lead in Catherine Corsini’s otherwise disappointing lesbian romance Summertime, but overall I was frustrated by the absence of filmmaker Q&A’s or even introductory comments at screenings – something Wicked Queer isn’t alone in letting slip, but that seems to me essential to drawing audiences in our couch-bound, festival-saturated era. Let’s hope the upcoming queer film-oriented (by not –exclusive) Provincetown International Film Festival does more in this regard.
Though it’s perhaps the best known and most painstakingly restored of the city’s revival houses, Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre is at enough of a remove from my base in Cambridge that I don’t get there very often – though I owe to it one of my all-time favorite screenings, last summer’s sold-out 40th anniversary showing of a restored print of local favorite Jaws. The arrival each spring of the Independent Film Festival Boston provides welcome motivation to get to both the Coolidge and the Somerville Theatre, comparable to the Coolidge in both charm and devotion to keeping 35mm film projection alive.
IFFBoston having just concluded, I can attest to its devoted attempts to bring filmmakers for post-screening discussions, even if via Skype (as was used for Q&A’s with Mike Birbiglia and Sophia Takal; I admit I’m a bit dubious of this method, but both seem to have gone over well). Takal’s work, as represented by her Jury Prize-winning Always Shine, was my big discovery of the festival, though it was edged out slightly by my overall favorite-of-fest, Ira Sachs’ Little Men. Both films introduced me to spellbinding new performers: Mackenzie Davis in Always Shine and Michael Barbieri, the teenage second coming of John Travolta, in Little Men (a breakthrough role already noted by the New York Times). In addition to Ira Sachs’ illuminating post-screening discussion, I enjoyed hearing from two other lovable artists, Alex Karpovsky and Clea DuVall, about their likeable films, Folk Hero & Funny Guy and The Intervention; the latter, co-starring Melanie Lynsky and Natasha Lyonne, was most fun for being an unofficial But I’m a Cheerleader reunion.
In a Winter/Spring issue devoted to movies at home, I would be remiss in not mentioning the Oscars…and yet I’m reluctant to rehash all that – so let’s just say that it was nice to be in Boston for Spotlight’s surprise end-of-night win, which countered the disappointment of my year’s favorite, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, being sabotaged by Charlotte Rampling’s ill-advised comments. Let’s hope the dialogue and (however underwhelming) action mobilized by #OscarsSoWhite continues to gain traction in years to come.
In closing, one final turn on the movies at home theme announced itself with the recent news of Screening Room, which aims, in a steroid-sized version of the day-and-date distribution model, to stream first-run studio films into homes simultaneously with their theatrical releases. Though it appears the Screening Room venture has already been met with sizable resistance, online streaming services Netflix and Amazon steamrolled their way through Sundance in January, picking up films and jacking up prices. The result, as Nick James discusses in his editorial in the March issue of Sight & Sound, is that “a different industry pattern is now taking shape that assumes the natural place to first experience ‘originals’ is at home – even though filmmakers will continue to insist on theatrical release.” Yet it’s only those already established filmmakers who can hold out for distribution deals guaranteeing theatrical exhibition. And as we’ve seen with recent gambits (gimmicks?) to get audiences to theatres with Tarantino’s 70mm roadshow of The Hateful Eight and neo-noir Too Late’s exclusive 35mm release, such attempts don’t always pay off financially. As New York Times critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott’s conversation on the topic explores, while there are pros and cons to both home and theatrical exhibition, something important is irretrievably lost with the absence of communal viewing. To end on an opposite note than I began but one more simpatico with my “itinerant” mission, I hereby pledge to commemorate those joys of communal viewing with a soon-forthcoming remembrance of my most memorable theatrical screenings so far…Stay tuned!
Coming Attractions: 7 Favorite Film-going Experiences, My Criterion Top 10, Favorite LGBTQ Films, Summer Movie-going…
Issue 13 | Fall 2015 (Cambridge, MA)
Fighting festival fatigue and “festival-itis”
There are less fanciful reasons for the belatedness of this blog post, having to do with the frantic life of an untenured academic, but I would attribute the delay in part to a lingering feeling of festival fatigue. It’s a condition I diagnosed after having seen an unusual number (even for me) films in the course of my summer travels, and noticing how, in the attempt to stand out from the considerable crowd of festival and art house contenders, such films try to do too much and fall short in the process – an affliction that I’m calling “festival-itis.” Given the frequency with which a much-anticipated film would start off promisingly only to veer off the rails with a self-indulgent, wholly unnecessary dose of whimsy (Yi’nan Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice; Bruno Dumont’s Lil Quin’quin), an ill-conceived turn into magical realism (Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja; Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights), or a lamentable stroke of third act self-sabotage (Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster; Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart), the festival-itis took hold mid-trip and is only starting to subside.
One result proved to be that I found myself favoring those films that didn’t try too hard or attempt to do too much. Ones that scaled small, stayed consistent in tone and genre, and though emotionally muted still spoke volumes – films like Adrián Biniez’s El Cinco, Micah Magee’s Petting Zoo, Ognjen Svilicic’s These Are the Rules, and Paz Fabrega’s Viaje. These were the works – personal, observational, modest, and moving – that proved the most satisfying and memorable. My preference for the small but only superficially simple seems to have informed my list of Favorite Films of 2015 as well, certainly in comparison to a lot of other “best of” lists such as those included in Senses of Cinema’s 2015 World Poll in which I again took part.
In offering up my reflections on my festival attendance in a report published in NECSUS, I voiced some dissatisfaction with how aspects of the Midnight Sun and Karlovy Vary festivals were run. Weighing their respective bungling against their respective charm, ultimately I’m still glad to have attended the former but very much regret having bothered with the latter. But the year’s prize for poorest run festival goes to one closer to home: the Philadelphia Film Festival. Whereas Midnight Sun had the excuse of being dinky-sized and Karlovy Vary of being monstrous-sized, as a moderate-sized and long-running festival the PFF has no good reason I can see for being as unprofessionally run as it proved to be.
I’d had a good experience at the previous year’s fest; the highlight was being treated to the resplendent Clouds of Sils Maria months before most were able to see it (hence its first place entry on my list of favorite films of 2014). And this fall was gearing up to be as promising; the programmers manage to attract prominent films and the palatial Prince Theatre venue was up and running. But from the first event, a post-Carol Q&A with Todd Haynes undermined by a microphone glitch and clumsy moderator, I was dispirited by the wasted opportunity; by the last event, a screening of Gaspar Noe’s Love that I missed due to having left the queue after waiting outside in cold, wet weather an hour and a half past the supposed start time due to 3-D projector problems, I was downright exasperated. Luckily I don’t appear to have missed much; Film Comment’s Laura Kern called it the biggest disappointment at Cannes and an “idiotic porn snoozefest.” Nonetheless, I’d have appreciated the opportunity to make that determination myself. Perhaps the problem was with the Prince and not the festival crew; screenings at the other (albeit less ambient) venues seemed to run on time and more or less competently. But the Q&A’s were mostly non-existent and never well executed, which can only be the festival runners’ fault.
Sorry not to be able to be more of a booster for my current hometown’s festival, December and traveling back to Boston didn’t bring much improvement. The Coolidge Corner Theatre’s 70mm roadshow of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was enlivening for proving that film-going is thriving (and film projection still kicking), but for me the film itself left much to be desired. As charming as it was to receive a glossy program and hear an overture, it fell flat in comparison to my still vivid memory of the rousing audience reaction to Pulp Fiction’s opening credits scrolling onto the screen (and everything that followed) of the Harvard Square AMC on its opening night, two decades ago now.
The more satisfying screening was Bob and the Trees – not, as the title might suggest, a Twin Peaks reboot, but rather a Massachusetts-shot fiction/doc hybrid shown at MoMA as part of the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You series, followed by a worth-staying-for Q&A with the cast and crew. But the crowning performance event of the holiday season wasn’t even cinematic, though it was transcendent: Joanna Newsom’s show at the legendary Apollo.
Though it didn’t stem from festival fatigue or festival-itis, I experienced some considerable cinephile-related melancholy upon October’s news of the unexpected death of Chantal Akerman, one of my foundational and still favorite filmmakers (I found this commemoration in Keyframe particularly befitting.) It was all the more disheartening, if also more understandable, that Akerman canceled her planned appearance at Bologna’s screening of her restored Jeanne Dielman. It’s a small consolation that Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, has received many rapturous reviews and has upcoming screenings at the Harvard Film Archive and elsewhere.
Despite my festival overload, I am sorry not to be attending Sundance this year – especially as, during the all too frequent frustrations of the aforementioned festivals, I found myself continually struck by how smoothly the Park City folks run things. Price gouging by ticket re-sellers aside, Sundance offers a model on how to keep a festival feeling manageably sized and navigated. Even if Sundance can’t prove an antidote at present, I interpret my profound disappointment at skipping this year a promising sign that my case of festival fatigue is curable. As I do my excitement about the year’s coming attractions – as evidenced by this list, with which I’ll leave you, of my ten most anticipated films of 2016. Here’s hoping they avoid succumbing to the dreaded festival-itis.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey
Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’avenir (Things to Come)
Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash
Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women
Athena Rachael Tsangari’s Chevalier
Clea DuVall’s The Intervention
Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann
Lucrecia Martel’s Zama
Coming attractions: My Favorite 15 of the First 15 (2000-2015), hometown movie-going, the Oscars…
Issue 12 | August 2015 (Paris, France)
50th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, kino-going in Prague, last stop: Paris
So as not to hold you in suspense a moment longer, the 2001: A Space Odyssey screening in Bologna was the best-of-trip, narrowly edging out the Purple Rain screening at Midnight Sun and the Casablanca screening also in the Piazza Maggiore. Surely this is in part a result of the dearth of any mind-blowing discoveries of new films I made on the trip, but it’s hard to beat the combination of a much-loved (and spectacular, in the true sense of the term) film screened in a beautiful location on a lovely summer evening. Having found the audience at the Casablanca screening (see Issue 11 below) strangely reticent, I didn’t anticipate (and so regrettably didn’t record) the swell of applause that erupted after the chills-inducing opening credits scored to the unforgettable strains of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (anyone needing a reminder can view this (inferior) version, sans applause). It was an electrifying start to the screening of what remains an awe-inspiring film, and a rousing reminder of how much communal spectatorship matters.
My next stop, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, was not nearly so astounding and romantic a cinematic destination despite their attempts to sell it as such. The spa town that houses it features some grandly old-world hotels including the Bristol Palace, supposedly the inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel (though I’d presume some Hungary hotelier might dispute that). These along with the surrounding green hills and cool breezes made for an enticing enough setting, even if the local custom of “taking the waters” seems a fairly ludicrous scam on which to build a tourist destination. But what I imagine is typically a quietly quaint town is transformed, during the festival, into what I would describe as Euro Spring Break. Without going so far as foam parties, there were definitely throngs of partiers seemingly there for reasons beyond cinephilia, to which the techno music blaring from the Finlandia pop-up bar at 3am is testament enough.
Adding to the fray, this festival set a new high in terms of overall incompetence, though interestingly in the opposite way from Midnight Sun (despite my gradual coming to appreciate the latter, I don’t plan to return to either and thus am unworried about badmouthing them). Rather than having next to nothing constituting a system, as had been the case in Lapland, here there was a system so needlessly overcomplicated that it made my head spin. The first opportunity to reserve (not purchase) tickets came a week before festival’s start, when at the appointed morning hour one could go online (this was challenging enough given that the internet connection in my Glasgow flat was sorely unreliable) and delve into a free-for-all upon release of only 10% of the available tickets. Having planned our wish list and working furiously as soon as the system opened, we still managed to secure reservations for only three films. Once the festival started, additional tickets were released but still only a percentage, and only a day in advance, and only available for purchase in person or via a complicated SMS messaging system that carried an additional charge and was clearly weighted in favor of those with local calling plans. If you’re feeling confused, just wait: then, there was an additional percentage of remaining tickets released an hour before any given screening, obtainable only in person at a particular ticket desk where any individual ticket-seller had only so many tickets s/he was allotted to sell. Is your head spinning yet? Then, five minutes before the screening begins, all remaining seats are released to anyone in the standby line – but because tickets at most theatres came with designated seat assignments, unless you were willing to risk losing your crappy seat, you would find yourself sitting rows behind people who had only just walked in. Not that standby was even a surefire venture; only at the smaller, out of the way venues did it work, and while those were mostly staffed by friendly young volunteers, the big venues were watched over menacingly by thuggish bouncers who seemingly possessed no information yet were still empowered to dictate access.
Adding to this insanity, the headquarters hotel housed not one but 19 individual ticket desks, each of which seemed to be equipped to handle only a single task, so one was forced to make the rounds to multiple desks each day to buy passes, pick up reserved tickets (which one could do also only the day in advance), and buy last-minute tickets. I realize that putting on a film festival is an arduous process with myriad moving parts, and what initially seemed confounding was by Day 2 navigable, yet there’s no excuse for making things so overly complicated and lacking in transparency. Needless to say, though it reveals my Anglo-centrism to say it, for an “international” film festival the staff was far from reliably English-speaking.
I can only imagine that this system was designed with the thought that it would benefit day-trippers and last-minute planners, though it hardly seems fair to privilege these casual festival-goers over those attending the festival in its entirety (or close to it). The experience made me reflect on the respective pros-and-cons between this system and that of Sundance, where there are only three official stages of ticket acquisition: an initial date on which those buying festival passes and locals can choose films, a later date when single tickets are released, and the final waitlist that opens two hours before a screening. Of course this privileges pass-buyers and locals, but that seems fair in my estimation insofar as those committing to attending most/all of the festival and so opting for a major outlay of money are rewarded with getting their preferred tickets, but without leaving community members out in the cold. Of course this still results in the price-hiking eBay/Craigslist melee I chronicled back in Issue 7, and yet one isn’t compelled to engage with that, and certainly Karlovy Vary’s rival system didn’t result in my coming any closer to getting my first picks for screenings. Though it’s a much smaller festival than either of these, Bologna lingered even more fondly in my mind for their infinitely simple, first-come first-serve approach to ticket-buying (and one with a considerable student discount), where I got into every screening I attempted, with the only downside being having to wait in crowded, non-air-conditioned theatre lobbies for the previous screenings to let out.
Having still managed to see 9 films in 3 days, I felt accomplished in having persevered in my productivity in spite of the festival’s attempts at clogging the works, and yet on the whole was unsuccessful in my choices (or opportunities) of what to see. Again, my film reviews will be published elsewhere, but among those I saw only one stood out as consistently, memorably excellent – and it was not a discovery but rather a 2014 festival favorite that I’d been eager to see, and which gladly didn’t disappoint: Lucie Borleteau’s Fidelio, Alice’s Journey (check out the trailer here, though without English subtitles). As a part-time resident/full-time booster of Massachusetts, I was excited to learn that Bob and the Trees, a “verité drama” filmed in Western Mass. and featuring a local logger playing himself, won the top prize, the Crystal Globe.
Beyond the techno and ticketing torments, yet another vexing aspect of Karlovy Vary was its throwback sexism, still lingering despite the reported 28% of this year’s competition films being female-directed, and most evident in the closing ceremony’s featuring of bikini-clad young women (this antiquated custom was still going on as of last year, though because I left before festival’s end I can’t verify whether it continues). Even the statuette they award is sexualized: a nude woman with breasts thrust forward rapturously holding up a giant glass ball. In the great majority of cases, this so-called Crystal Globe is awarded to white English-speaking men for their ostensible “Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema,” and if this year’s award-winner (Richard Gere) stretches plausibility on that front, consider that the 2007 award went to Danny DeVito.
As for its more positive attributes, the festival’s daily bi-lingual newspaper featured, among other things, excellent interviews with this year’s special guests Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, and George Romero – all far more special, in my opinion, than the person most lauded this year (see above). As for the festival’s promotional trailers featuring past winners, I have mixed feelings; on the one hand, they showed ingenuity and charm in this one starring Jude Law and another starring (in a rare exception to the white males only rule) Vĕra Chytilová. Yet the one that received grossly disproportionate play and featured the repugnant Mel Gibson (apparently not so reviled in the Czech Republic as he is in the U.S.) grew increasingly noxious with every additional enforced viewing, as did the mystifying applause that greeted it. Though I don’t recommend going, if you ever were to find yourself in Karlovy Vary, the one place I’d recommend is the Bokovka Wine Club, a hidden gem clinging to the hill behind the Husovka Theatre, where they serve up excellent burgers in addition to local wine. And should you want to read more about the festival, from reporters less critical of it than myself, check out this piece from Fandor or this one from Thompson on Hollywood.
On to Prague, where I would strongly urge anyone to steer as clear as possible of the hyper-touristy Staré Město district, which is unbearably tacky and besieged by Segway tours. Unfortunately, because we were using the city as a crashpad en route to/from Karlovy Vary, it wasn’t altogether possible to avoid, but luckily I saw enough of the “real” Prague to want to return when I have the time to explore it properly – especially since Prague appears to have a number of cinemas showing original (not dubbed) versions of English-language films. I was only in town long enough to visit one, so elected to go to the Kino Světozor (for a screening of neo-Western Slow West) and was very glad I did, if not so much for the film but both for the cinema itself and the adjoining café-bar complete with Twin Peaks-styled décor. Of those I left sight unseen (alongside these underground cinemas and these summertime outdoor offerings) I especially regret not getting to visit Bio Oko for its kitschy screening set-ups (featured in this article on Prague’s top cinemas), as well as the century-old palace-styled Lucerna. I was also sorry not to have made it to the “Na film!” exhibition at the Museum Montanelli, mounted by Film Studies students at Charles University as a call for a national film museum.
Finalement, Paris. Poring over my trusty ParisScope, I went looking for the English-language films (virtually no dubbing here, thank goodness) and naturally found plenty from which to choose. I figured I needn’t trek around town in the July heat to visit and photograph those I didn’t have time to fully experience, only to find myself coming upon one after another of the art cinemas I’d read about in my casual perambulations around town. At least one in every neighborhood, and one on every block in some neighborhoods. The most charming one I came across was La Pagode, on the peaceful rue de Babylone, which features a lovely Zen-styled garden. It’s not hard to imagine how the legendary Cahiers critics managed to fill their days slipping in and out of so many films, and were I to live in Paris I would relish doing the same. Though French is the foreign language I know best, I’m still nowhere near good enough to grasp a French film without subtitles, and so I would be (and was) limited in that regard. Still, I need to find a way to get back to Paris for a longer time and more intensive movie-going.
Though greater in number, the cinemas weren’t always as charming or comfortable as some of those I’d visited along my journey, but instead tend towards being old, cramped, and overly warm. I’d been enthused to see Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout on the big screen for the first time, but upon sitting down at La Clef Cinema I realized the screen I’d be watching it on wasn’t much larger than the big-screen TV on which I’d first seen it back in my family’s house. The night before, we were fortunate to get tickets to a sold-out screening of The Lobster, showing as part of a series of 2015 Cannes award winners, at the historic Egyptian-themed Le Luxour. Yet the bigger disappointment than the film itself, sadly, was the theatre – both balcony and floor seats provided poor vantage points, although the rooftop café-bar was (as this article predicted) swell indeed. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend an en plein air screening while in Paris, as here too they don’t start until late July.
Though housed in an unfortunately designed (by Frank Gehry) building, La Cinémathèque Française was a sight to behold for its “Antonioni: the Origins of Pop” exhibition, curated by Dominique Païni. Glad to have caught it during its final week, I felt the show on the whole did Antonioni justice (read this more extensive commentary in Film Comment), though I remain perplexed about its title (the Pop Art movement seems to be only one – and not the primary one – of those influencing, and influenced by, Antonioni), and wish that the exhibition’s culminating focus on those artists influenced by Antonioni had been more developed.
It’s always a bit deflating to come to the end of a trip, and with the pile of work awaiting me back home I know these days of dedicated movie-going will be missed. Hence why I’m posting this August issue early, both because I wanted to reflect on my trip’s last leg while it was still fresh and because of the sizable catching-up on work I must do before the start of fall classes. But it makes leaving Paris a bit easier knowing that I’ll arrive back in Boston in time to catch the last half of the MFA’s 20th annual French Film Festival, where I’ll get to see some of this year’s Cannes favorites (Breathe, Li’l Quinquin, and Party Girl) that eluded me on my travels. And, somewhat surprisingly given that it’s blockbuster season, there are a number of films of interest (Amy, Charlie’s Country, Tangerine) playing at an art house near me…a symptom of oversaturation in recent art film production, but one for which I’m grateful.
Coming attractions: catching up on summer movies, finalizing the 2015 best of list…
Issue 11 | July 2015 (Bologna, Italy)
Conferencing in the U.K., 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival, celebrating film’s past (and future) at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna
The day of my arrival in Dublin was Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses, though there was no carousing evident. My own (cinematic) carousing had to be put on hold because I had a conference paper to write for Console-ing Passions, my primary reason for coming to Ireland. Unfortunately for the Dubliners but fortunately for me, given my tendency to wax regretful over missed movie-going opportunities, there are not so many art houses in town and mostly they were playing quasi-art films (Dear IMC Screen Cinema: Entourage, really?!). Thus I didn’t feel overly bereft about leaving them unexplored. I’d liked to have made it to The Lighthouse, but when forced to choose, the premier venue was clearly the Irish Film Institute.
Unfortunately for me, the film I elected to see there, Black Coal Thin Ice, was a disappointment, despite the enthusiastic reviews that had preceded it and its intriguing title/premise and atmospheric setting. (Note: In the interest of space/time constraints, I won’t be editorializing about films here – though a review of my festival screenings will be forthcoming.) Even more unfortunate for me (but very fortunate for Dubliners), my conference paper was scheduled on the same morning that the box office opened (and nearly instantaneously sold out of tickets) for what’s known as “Open Day,” a morning-noon-and-night of free screenings for which I would have happily remained ensconced within the IFI’s confines. By the time I’d presented, everything was sold out; I especially regret having missed Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders, which won the 2014 Grand Prix at Cannes but still hasn’t received U.S. distribution. And yet the conference paper (on “late queer” politics of representation in LGBT web series) was written and delivered successfully, and in the swanky surrounds of The Marker Hotel, so all’s well that ends well.
On to Edinburgh for the 69th annual communing of what’s (according to its Twitter handle) “the longest continually running film festival in the world.” Edinburgh is a big enough festival that it is ostensibly forced to rely on such charmless multiplex-style venues as the CineWorld; I much preferred festival headquarters’ Filmhouse and the neighboring Odeon. With yet another conference paper to write, this one for Screen at the University of Glasgow, I spent the majority of my days in town huddled in front of my laptop at the thoroughly cozy Lovecrumbs café, recommended by my Wellesley classmate (and published Scottish-American poet!) JL Williams, with whom I got to catch up while in town.
And of course I made time for evening screenings at the festival: Michael Mann’s debut feature, the 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, evocatively filmed entirely inside Folsom Prison; fairly predictable thriller and bona-fide “festival film” The Incident, most interesting for starring Ruta Gedmintas (of Lip Service fame), her stunning wardrobe, and an equally stunning modernist dwelling in Yorkshire; and another laboriously festival-formula film, the much-hyped, Schwarzenegger-starring “alt-zombie” indie Maggie.
My personal favorite-of-fest was Chuck Norris vs. Communism, a documentary directed and produced by the sister team that is Vernon Films, who led a spirited Q&A afterwards together with Ilina Nistor, a woman whose voice is intimately known and beloved by Romanians due to her having dubbed thousands of bootleg movies distributed on the black market and watched at illegal viewing parties during the Ceausescu regime. It was an inspiring if ideologically one-sided film that I look forward to writing more about.
Fortuitously, one of the big winners at Edinburgh (and another film-about-film) was The Wolfpack, which my Screen conference paper focused on along with its fictional counterpart Dogtooth (see a condensed version of my take here). To bookend my conference presentation, I made two trips to the Art Deco-designed, elegant but expensive Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) for two re-viewings. Both exceeded my memories of having first viewing them: with Andrew Bujalski’s Results, its dialogue’s subtleties must have been a bit lost in the sold-out Sundance screening I saw in January; with the 2K restoration re-release of The Long Good Friday, a good many of the dialogue’s subtleties remained lost on me (due to the thick Cockney spoken by its characters), but it was nonetheless an electrifying viewing. Apart from an obtrusive synth soundtrack and curiously ill-judged shower sequence shot in slow-mo soft-porn style yet featuring the hairy fireplug Bob Hoskins, who is transcendently terrifying in every other scene as mobster-“businessman” Harold Shand, the film doesn’t just hold up but proves both a worthy culmination to the British gangster films of the sublime 70s as well as impressively ahead of its time in its (and Harold’s) envisioning of the “new London.”
My only complaint about the GFT and other UK art cinemas, which mostly seem to belong to the Europa Cinemas exhibition group, is the endless stream of noisome ads – far more than in the U.S. – that one is forced to endure before screening’s start. Having recalled from my college study abroad year in London such ads as being artistically and conceptually innovative (this being before we had ads in U.S. cinemas – so as far-fetched as it now sounds, then it seemed to me an enticing custom), it was a shame to find they’d deteriorated and proliferated. Also frustrating, Glasgow’s other primary venue for art film exhibition, the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), was on hiatus with its film programming – apparently in preparation for its series in conjunction with Glasgow’s Comic-Con (which I’m very much glad to have missed).
With the most intellectually taxing (due to the stress of writing two conference papers in ten days) and expensive (due to the conversion rate of the British pound) portion of the trip complete, it was on to Bologna, Italy for Il Cinema Ritrovato. I knew this festival’s focus on rediscovered works of film history and issues of preservation and archiving were not strictly in keeping with my project’s focus on 21st century independent cinema/s. Yet I was tempted into going both by the allure of my paterfamilial homeland (and its delectable cuisine) and by the rapturous reviews I’d heard of this, “il festival più bello del mondo” – according to, among others, esteemed guest Isabella Rossellini, whose mother Ingrid Bergman’s face was plastered across town on festival publicity materials promoting a retrospective of her work.
The highlight of the festival so far has been a screening of Casablanca, preceded by Rossellini’s introduction, held al fresco and under a full moon in the Piazza Maggiore. (The photograph below comes courtesy of the festival’s Twitter feed; as a festival pass-holder, I was sitting closer to the screen so out of view of the 5,000-strong crowd that apparently availed themselves of every possible viewing position). In keeping with their (our, if I might include myself) reputation for vocal opining, a protest in support of Greece (and against EU-mandated austerity measures) roundly received cheering from the assembled Italians. Earlier that day, an audience at the Arlecchino Cinema had managed to successfully applaud off stage a windbag delivering an endless pre-screening introduction. Working on the same cultural stereotype, I might have assumed the audience would be more audibly appreciative of the film, but there was respectful silence throughout – something I was grateful for, given that a good many outdoor screenings result in drowned-out dialogue, even if I would have liked there to have been a round of “bravos” after the rousing La Marseillaise sequence, or at least at film’s end.
The prospect of expressing an original take on Casablanca is daunting, given its canonicity, but I’ll risk it to share a few thoughts. First, it struck me that, with Bergman’s Ilsa being guilted/manhandled by Bogart’s Rick into rejoining her Nazi-resisting husband at film’s end, Casablanca is essentially a reversal of Bergman’s decision a few years later to leave her husband (and child) for Roberto Rossellini, presumably (and to quote When Harry Met Sally) “the man with whom she had the greatest sex of her life.” Very much a Production Code film, and a pre-feminist one at that (see Ilsa’s line to Rick, “You must do the thinking for both of us” – which did solicit some female-sounding groans from the audience). Not to mention highly problematic, racially speaking, in its characterization and treatment of pianist Sam. And yet its charms do not wear off: the allegorical but not overstated case it makes against political isolationism, the screwball-speed dialogue innervingly exchanged by its stellar cast of European character actors (Marcel Dalio! Sydney Greenstreet! Peter Lorre! Claude Rains!). Strangely, the other Bergman film I saw in Bologna, Rossellini’s Europa ’51, seemed nearly to condemn her character with the same rationale used by those who denounced her in Congress, when child neglect provokes her to guilt-ridden extremes of martyrdom.
Another revelatory festival screening was the three hour twenty minute (all of them riveting) Jeanne Dielman…, which I had yet to see on the big screen, and which was recently restored by the Belgian Cinematek, though alas its director Chantal Akerman was a no-show. A day trip to the neighboring town of Ferrara turned up a charming art house of its own, the Apollo, though given that it wasn’t affiliated with the Cineteca di Bologna it defaulted to Italy’s penchant for dubbing – leaving me bereft at not being able to enjoy a screening of Paolo Sorrentino’s latest (and first English-language) film, Youth.
In an attempt to correct my imposter-like ignorance of the pressing concerns around film archiving and preservation shared by those who run and religiously attend Il Cinema Ritrovato, I attended the “Future of Film” panel moderated by Variety critic Scott Foundas and featuring an array of prominent filmmakers and archivists – though only one woman, FIAF’s Rachael Stoltje, among them. It was an informative discussion that, for all its despairing about the current state of emergency regarding the processing, projecting, and preserving of print film, was rousing for the calls to arms and for collaboration that each inspiring panelist delivered. This panel, along with a (delectable) lunch with my dissertation director and festival-regular Janet Bergstrom, made me feel like I’d nearly jettisoned my Il Cinema Ritrovato-interloper status.
Apart from festival-going, Bologna has provided some outstanding meals (natch) as well as record heat – not always the best combination, but managed well enough with the addition of an Aperol Spritz or proseco at regular intervals. This life of film-going interspersed with leisurely meals and aperitivo is easy to get used to, and so I’ll be sad to leave…but glad for a worthy send-off with tonight’s Piazza screening, which seems ideally timed not just for my farewell tomorrow but for the celebration of July 4 back in the U.S. – at least I can’t think of a cinematic happening that would come closer to imitating the soaring bombast of a fireworks display than a 70mm-projected outdoor exhibition of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another contender for the pantheon of most memorable movie-going experiences…
Coming attractions: Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Prague, and Paris
Issue 10 | June 2015 (Helsinki, Finland)
Decoding film schedules, avoiding dubbing, and other things lost in translation from Istanbul to Lapland
Arriving in Budapest, I knew little about Hungarian cinema except that it’s had an exciting year, with the authoritarian allegory White Dog receiving acclaim after opening at Sundance and the concentration camp-set Son of Saul winning the Grand Prize at Cannes. Unfortunately the current national offering I managed to see while in Budapest was neither of these, but rather the “quirky” romantic comedy For Some Inexplicable Reason, which had all the markers of a fresh-out-of-film-school feature. After a while I stopped counting all the derivative allusions to better films, from Harold and Maude to Swingers, but ignoring the protagonist’s prattling attempt to get over one manic pixie dream girl by romancing another proved more difficult. Filmed locally, it was enjoyable to see a number of the same sights I’d glimpsed around town, and the older actors who play the quirky protagonist’s parents were actually quite engaging – were the film to have focused on them rather than their navel-gazing son, it would have been far more compelling. But I’m glad to have seen a film at the funky Cirko-Gejzir, which bills itself as the smallest cinema in Europe (I’m skeptical), and where there was a stack of blankets at the front of each theater (lest you catch a chill while viewing).
My other cinema-going experience in Budapest was similarly funky, though in a different way: a rooftop screening of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, at a cavernous club called the Corvintető, atop a six-floor winding staircase (I couldn’t resist taking this video as I descended the stairs) in a building that was once a luxury department store. Under-estimating the scores of young Budapest hipsters that would come out in force, we arrived too late to get a proper seat and were forced to sit on the benches reserved for smoking (something everyone does, it seems, in Budapest) with an obstructed view of the screen. Not that I was expecting great things from Besson’s notorious flop, but its ridiculousness seemed all the more apparent because it was dubbed into Hungarian and given English subtitles – a choice that seemed to indicate that these moviegoers weren’t expected to be studiously attentive. As I’ve expressed in these blog-pages before, I find dubbing abominable, though it’s less offensive with a movie like The Fifth Element than with a series of French art films such as those screening at Corvintető later this summer in a series sponsored by the Budapest Film Institute.
Though Budapest has no shortage of similarly funky art house cinemas, unfortunately it is the default that they habitually dub their films – something not always easily deduced from the confounding Hungarian-language film listings. So my visits were confined to checking out the lobbies and (when I could gain access) theaters rather than having an actual film-going experience. While the Örökmozgó Filmmúzeum and Puskin Theatre looked to be programming some worthwhile work, I’m genuinely disappointed not to have seen a film in the resplendent cinema of the Uránia National Film Theatre. And in a continuing trend, my trip’s timing prevented me from attending this weekly event featuring Hungarian-born film critic Andrew L. Urban leading a English-language screening and discussion at Brody Studios.
My visit was perfectly timed, however, for the Ludwig Museum’s retrospective on Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the two Hungarian-born maestros of cinematography (the other being László Kovács, with whom Zsigmond escaped from the county after the 1956 Uprising). Zsigmond shot two of my favorite films (McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye), not to mention 24 episodes (to date) of The Mindy Project. Strangely, that last work wasn’t covered in the exhibit – but his student film was, which made abundantly clear the talent that would emerge. Though Hungary’s national cinema languished in the collective brain-drain during its years under Communist rule, its eventual revival has been coupled with an influx of foreign production outfits (doing a healthy business in both Hollywood blockbusters and pornography) attracted to its low cost and Old World atmosphere. Our first night there, what seemed to be an extensive production had taken over our hotel’s cross-street, so I’ll be looking for the aptly named Mária utca at a theatre near me.
Cinemas aside, my impressions of Budapest were mixed – though welcoming enough, the people seemed rather beleaguered, and a sense of Soviet Era despondency seemed to hang over the town. The city certainly has its charms: the #2 tram line, which winds along the Danube, was voted to have one of the prettiest views in all of Europe; the hereby-named “disco steamroom” is itself worth a trip to the Gellért Baths; and (after Istanbul) still more great-tasting and shockingly low-priced local wine was flowing. Less charming, at my age, were the “ruined garden” bars, which sounded evocative when I was reading about them but turned out, at least on the weekend night when we ventured to their ground zero, Kazinczy utca, to be Budapest’s answer to Bourbon Street. With a week spent inhaling secondary smoke and scrutinizing nearly unintelligible film listings only to be disappointed to find the “m.f.” designation signifying that a film is dubbed, I wasn’t sad to board the train for Vienna – especially since it would be the first in a few excursions inspired by a certain favorite film of mine, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise…
Sadly, train travel in Europe isn’t what it used to be…or at least how it used to look in movies. Not air-conditioned and packed to the gills, it wasn’t much different from America’s Amtrak – save some occasional pastoral views, it was decidedly less romantic than Céline and Jesse’s meet cute en route to Vienna. As were two other Before Sunrise sites I visited: used vinyl store Teuchtler Records appears to be run by hoarders who knocked out the listening booth where Céline and Jesse listen to a Kath Bloom album to make room for a fire escape (detailed here by a fan even more obsessive than I), while the Weiner Riesenrad ferris wheel (the latter also features prominently in The Third Man, discussed below) offered nice views but no private carriages, and the ADHD-addled children sharing ours compromised the experience significantly. Finally, Café Sperl fully lived up to its on-screen charm even if their Sacher torte was nothing to write home about.
As for cinemas, the single film-going experience I had here was memorable: a screening of The Third Man at the Burg Kino, which screens the classic thrice weekly. Even after repeat viewings it’s an outstanding film, though perhaps the Viennese go a tad overboard in dedicating a museum (open only four hours per week), a walking tour, and a guided descent into the sewer system where Orson Welles’ Harry Lime attempts to escape, to the film. Rats apparently being a feature of the latter, I’m glad to have missed it. I’m very much sorry, on the other hand, to have missed what looks like an amazing line-up at the biennial Identities Queer Film Festival – including one of my favorite films of last year, Appropriate Behavior, opening the fest, and other favorites both classic (Personal Best) and recent (Love Is Strange). I was glad to have at least seen the very cool Top Kino, one of the festival’s venues., alongside an inspiring exhibit of screen art at Vienna’s modern art museum MUMOK titled, with bravado, “My Body Is the Event: Vienna Actionism and International Performance.”
Despite being extremely hot during my stay, it seems Vienna waits until later in the summer to inaugurate their open air cinemas. Alas I didn’t have much luck with indoor viewings either, since it’s dismayingly the norm here as well to dub films or simply not to provide English subtitles (though I’m aware it seems Anglo-centric to imagine that an Austrian cinema would do the latter). Oddly, there simultaneously exists the family-run 1912 four-cinema complex named the Haydn English Cinema, which explicitly bills itself – in what seems like a declaration of war between dueling cinemas – as showing “current English-language movies without subtitles.” I opted not to choose sides, though had the Haydn been a trifle more charming and showing something better than Hollywood dreck, I’d have been tempted.
More upsetting was not getting to attend a vintage screening of an Ufa studio classic at the Bellaria Kino; to compensate, I promised myself a re-viewing of the moving 2002 documentary Bellaria: As Long as We Live!, about its devoted patrons. Where dubbing wasn’t an issue, timing was; most heartbreaking of all was missing the Austrian Film Museum’s (Honorary President: Martin Scorsese!) retrospective of works by Losey, Ray, and Welles, especially since those English-language films were show “O.S.,” in the original version. I was also disappointed to learn that the “museum” in its title was misleading, as there are no exhibitions but only an archive that required advance notice to access.
These setbacks aside, I found Vienna beguiling indeed; its legendary charms are very much intact, and come in equal doses of old world quaintness and contemporary cool. And as someone for whom a city’s culinary offerings largely determine my feelings about it, I was not disappointed – though not low-calorie, and not on par with Istanbul’s, Viennese cuisine is scrumptious, all the more so when enjoyed al fresco in one of the many tucked-away courtyard beisl. For the first time on the trip thus far, I was genuinely sad to leave. And excited to return, preferably in the cooler autumn, to catch some of what I missed: the Freud Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a chamber music concert, an excursion to some of the wine gardens on the city’s outskirts…but until I become fluent in German or Vienna’s art cinemas change their dubbing-and-no-subtitling ways, it’s not likely that I’ll be doing much film-going there.
From Vienna, it was on to northern Finland and beyond the Arctic Circle (literally) for the Midnight Sun Film Festival, in the Lapland hamlet of Sodankylä. If this all sounds too dreamy for words, you’d be correct on two counts – it was both fantastical and nightmarish, in relatively equal measures. To recount the negative aspects first: despite convening for its 30th year (and the first following the passing of its founder, Peter von Bagh), the festival is run a lot more like one in its first year. There was considerable confusion and frustration, from ticket-buying to schedule-consulting to parking to queuing. Crowd-control was non-existent, so throngs of people filled the small indoor venues before every screening. The Big and Small Tents, while atmospheric, were not ideal screening spaces – cold and with uncomfortable seating, much of which was obstructed by tent-poles. At nearly every screening I attended, there were faults with the projection. Worst of all, the Koulu (School) theatre had only one entrance/exit, making it a veritable firetrap and one that makes me extremely concerned for the well-being of Sodankylän schoolchildren. No longer do I begrudge the Teuchtler Records owner for doing away with that listening booth.
The lure of the midnight sun aside, I can’t fathom why Sodankylä was selected as the festival town – picture Twin Peaks as envisioned by the early Harmony Korine for a sense of its air of despondent weirdness. One restaurant and a handful of food shacks provided slim pickings food-wise, though I did try reindeer (tender, not too flavorful) and though they managed to keep the beer flowing from morning to night (and from the sound of popping tabs, folks continued to imbibe once in the theater). Wifi was restricted to the spotty (presumably overloaded) local service because the festival doled out theirs only to registered press and “VIPs.” Bathrooms were in inordinately short supply. The couple of hotels in town were every bit the fleabags they were warned to be online – one hopes the VIPs weren’t being put up there – so I was relieved to have booked a log cabin a half-hour drive away. While the cabin itself was entirely welcoming, the resort it was situated within (I’ll save my naming-names for the TripAdvisor review to follow) seemed strangely desolate and qualified as the Finnish version of The Overlook Hotel, complete with off-season eeriness and (literally and figuratively) absentee staff. It was reported that 30,000 people bought festival tickets this year, though I think that must be a misleading statistic – at least I can’t imagine where all those people were staying, unless there was some vast campsite that I never stumbled across. Add to it that the sun continued to shine 24 hours a day, a spectacle both mesmerizing and disorienting. To be fair, there were some fairly spectacular landscapes to be glimpsed though it was too cold to do much lakeside frolicking – a blessing, apparently, as I was told that in warmer years festival-goers are besieged by mosquitos.
And, of course, there were movies to be seen – though here too, festival management (or lack thereof) made for endless challenges. Attempting to purchase tickets in advance of the festival, I was notified that they were available for reservation (not purchase) at a single venue, but only by phone. Only loosely registering this first sign of the challenges that lie ahead, I managed to talk a staff-person into letting me reserve by email, since calling from abroad was exorbitantly expensive. I made my best estimation of what I wanted to see based on the current program – which would go on to be revised at least a dozen times, in multi-colored near-unintelligible handouts that looked like they were mimeographed in the 1970s; they made Budapest film listings seem transparent. What I failed to note, and was not told, was that although these and all tickets weren’t refundable, they were exchangeable. So while I was dutifully avoiding the sunk cost fallacy when I found more promising films to substitute for the tickets I already held, returning my unused tickets to the ticket-sellers with the request that they pass them along to others, I could have saved euros aplenty. Most annoying was that filmmaker appearances went unnoted (and seemingly unplanned), so you couldn’t be sure whether any of this year’s illustrious guests (Miguel Gomes, Mike Leigh, Christian Petzold, and Whit Stillman) would be introducing or doing a Q&A for any given screening.
Though the festival has an unmistakable charm, it’s one that would I’m sure be retained even if it were to be run in a less ass-backwards fashion. Its summer camp vibe and eclectic mix of classic and new films are strong selling points both. But ultimately I felt hoodwinked by what was undoubtedly a masterful marketing scheme that enticed me into traveling far off the beaten path at considerable (albeit fellowship-funded) expense. Theirs was a grand illusion, and one that I fell for just like the romantic cinephile I am – as with my Before Sunrise-seeking in Vienna, a valuable lesson in remembering that life is never as good as it looks in the movies…or on the website.
So while it took some stumbling through Days 1 and 2 (I missed one of my most anticipated films, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, because it was screened with Russian/Swedish rather than English subtitles), by Day 3 I’d mastered things enough to know that the day was better spent walking around a nearby lake, sighting my first (live) reindeer (adorable, making me feel guilty about having eaten one a day earlier), and enjoying the log cabin’s brilliant built-in sauna (standard in Finnish homes, apparently) on what I only later learned was National Sauna Day.
And that night’s, my last’s, screenings were highly memorable, though neither film was new. Petzold was on hand to introduce the first, his arresting debut feature The State I Am In (2000). My film reviews will have to wait for the festival report I’m writing (publication information forthcoming), but the festival highlight was definitely my second film that night: the 11pm singalong screening of Purple Rain in the Big Tent – one of the top ten cinematic experiences I’ve had, with the exception of the local celebrity who was dressed up (unconvincingly) as Prince and charged (unnecessarily) with leading the singalong. As you can tell from my commemorative video, the crowd didn’t need any help in that department. While not a good film by any means, it made for a most excellent evening.
Unfortunately my layover in Helsinki is on a Monday, the day when museums and cinemas are largely dark, though I’m grateful both to be back in civilization and for the time to finish this blog entry. The takeaway from the trip thus far seems to be that the language barrier is a bitch, as I find myself seeing more English-language films than I’d planned merely because I can understand them (except in the case of The Fifth Element, and not just because it was dubbed), and far fewer films overall that I’d hoped. None of the promised attributes of Google Glass has ever appealed to me, but the option of instantaneous film translation would get me interested. I’m certainly ruing that I didn’t develop my language skills further, though it requires far more than a working knowledge of a foreign language to fully experience an art film sans subtitles. It’s no mystery why action-driven, effects-laden movies appeal to global audiences (though with Hollywood’s domination over distribution, there’s hardly any real alternative).
Though exceptions exist; to end on a related though somewhat random note, I’ve been surprised and impressed by the degree to which the films of Quentin Tarantino have penetrated these relatively distant lands – the Django Unchained soundtrack was playing at a bar in the Karaköy district of Istanbul; the film playing one week before The Fifth Element at Budapest’s Corvintető was Reservoir Dogs; the otherwise German-language CD selection at Vienna’s hip Phil Coffeehouse featured the Death Proof soundtrack; and at dinner on my first night in Helsinki, my curry stir-fry came with the apparently non sequitur name “Kill Bill.”
Coming Attractions: Console-ing Passions Conference in Dublin, Edinburgh Film Festival, Screen Conference in Glasgow, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna
Issue 9 | May 2015 (Istanbul, Turkey)
The Road Untraveled
As someone prone to pining for the road not taken, I find myself on the eve of my Cineuropean Tour departure preoccupied by what I am leaving behind as well as what I was forced to cast aside when planning my itinerary. The “leaving behind” consists mainly of summer in Massachusetts, my favorite season in my favorite state, though I’ll still arrive home with a solid month and a half with which to relish it. I’m also lamenting that there won’t be time for a NYC excursion to take advantage of these exciting summer cinema offerings, though I made up for it last month after binging on two Rohmer films (including a re-viewing of one of my top three, The Green Ray) at Lincoln Center plus a second helping of my favorite film of last year, The Clouds of Sils Maria (just as good, if not better, than I recalled) at the IFC Center.
The “cast aside” I already obsessed over a few issues back, but I was tormented anew by the reports flooding in from Cannes over the past month. I’d crossed it off because it would have required a much earlier departure (uncomfortably close to the semester’s end) and considerably more expense than other festivals, but even so…Most exciting and tortuous was hearing that Todd Haynes’ Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Taste of Salt, was rapturously received and was awarded the Queer Palm by a jury helmed by (another favorite film of last year) Appropriate Behavior director Desiree Akhavan.
While the overall lineup this year seems to have inspired more appreciation than awe, it was also simultaneously uplifting (to hear) and disappointing (not to have been there) that Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest (and first English-language) film Lobster won the Jury Prize. I’m thrilled to learn that it was picked up for U.S. distribution, though I’d have liked to see it before the paper I’ll be presenting on Lanthimos’ breakout film Dogtooth at next month’s Screen Conference in Glasgow.
Speaking of Greek cinema, I was especially torn about whether to add Athens to my itinerary, being thoroughly entranced by the work to date by “New Greek Wave” filmmakers Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg). As I was narrowing my options, I also read a beguiling novel (Rachel Cusk’s Outline) evocatively set in Athens, as well as spending some intoxicating time revisiting the Southern Peloponnese-set Before Midnight for a Film Quarterly essay I was writing. Most tantalizing of all were the rooftop cinemas I’d come across while researching, including the Anesis, the Cine Paris, and Cine Thisio. I have no good excuse for axing Athens, save that I whittled down my list by prioritizing countries where I hadn’t been previously (only having passed through Athens en route to the islands 15 years ago). Knowing my tendency to dwell, I will doubtless be despondent (not to mention alliterative) for the foreseeable future, at least until I manage to make my rounds among those rooftops. But in the meantime, I’m finding great consolation in the filmography of recent Greek cinema that Alex Lykidis, Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Monclair State University, was kind enough to compile. In addition to Alex’s list, posted below, I also highly recommend his article “Crisis of Sovereignty in Recent Greek Cinema.”
The nearest misses of all are those that are happening in the cities I’m visiting but on dates that don’t coincide. The four days I’m spending in Istanbul unfortunately are those on which this smashing-sounding “My Way: Gender and Identity in British Cinema” series at the Pera Museum is dark, and just before the Nordic Film Festival opens at the Istanbul Modern. Though I did spend an engrossing afternoon at the latter, where the exhibit on Magnum photographers was highly worth a look, and where the best features in the “Past and Future” exhibit of permanent collection works by Turkish artists were by women artists and/or about women’s issues, including Nilbar Güreş’s Undressing (2006), Şükran Moral’s Bordello (1997), and Kutluğ Ataman’s Women Who Wear Wigs (1999).
I also regretted just missing Mari Spirito, whose Protocinema organization (based in New York and Istanbul) I’d heard about, but I’m grateful for her recommendation that I stop by SALT Beyoğlu. Even if it was too between installations, I was glad to have gotten to wander through the site’s serene spaces, featuring a walk-in cinema, rooftop garden, and well-stocked bookstore.
While I was certainly intrigued by what I knew (or recently learned – thanks especially to Yaffa Fredrick’s “New Turkish Cinema in 20 Films” feature in Issue 6 below) about Turkish cinema, truth be told I hadn’t put Istanbul on my itinerary for the same reason I put my other destinations (rich prospects for cinema-going) but rather because I’ve been wanting to visit for ages and wasn’t sure when I’d again find myself (relatively) in the neighborhood. So while I knew going in that the cinema offerings were limited, I wasn’t quite prepared for the near-ubiquity with which the refrain “offers the latest in blockbuster films” appears in the individual movie theater listings in The Guide. Only two appeared to promise the sort of indie vibe I was going for: the Atlas Sinemasi founded in 1870 but worryingly playing blockbusters itself, and the Beyoğlu Sinemasi, less historic but playing more appealing titles (if nothing I couldn’t see at the Landmark Cinema back home). A walk through the Atlas was rather depressing, its forlorn lobby an afterthought in the recesses of what’s now a small shopping arcade off the hectic Istiklal Caddesi promenade.
Alas things weren’t much better at the Beyoğlu, though I was relieved upon buying my ticket to learn that the films were subtitled rather than dubbed, and priced at an astonishingly low 12 Turkish lira (about $4.50). Yet almost immediately the experience turned sour, as I was brusquely called away from touring the darkened lobby by an usher who seemed perturbed at having to stick around for the late show (9:15 start time – not exactly a midnight movie) for a mere two customers. The theater itself was more like a screening room, and no trailers preceded the film – only an extremely odd series of ads for an impossible to discern product. Just as I was starting to settle in to Far from the Madding Crowd, an impossible to ignore thumping sound started up and intermittently continued for the next ninety minutes; my two attempts to investigate turned up no visible evidence, just the auditory suggestion that the cinema is unfavorably within earshot of some substantial construction work. Interruptions aside, the film itself was the best part of the evening – and save a couple of riveting scenes featuring sheep in perilous situations and some reliably well-handled performances by Brits Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen, it wasn’t a standout. Between the Atlas and the Beyoğlu, then, one can hardly blame Istanbul residents for favoring seeing Hollywood blockbusters in more luxe conditions…
Perhaps both cinemas would have made a more positive impression had I visited them during the Istanbul Film Festival last month — more bad, though in this case unavoidable, timing, yet I’d have sacrificed a number of screenings in solidarity with the protest against censorship that occurred there. Cinemas aside, Istanbul hasn’t struck me with the same allure that it seems to inspire in so many Western visitors; the city seems overwhelming in its city-ness while its charms largely eluded me – and this coming from someone who found Bangkok charming, though admittedly I didn’t feel that way immediately. Being the bad tourist I am, I will spare you my disgruntled response to the one day of historical landmark-hitting I managed, for I’m sure I felt too crowd-phobic and cattle-herded to fully appreciate the Topkapi Palace et al. For every atmospheric note (the five-times-daily calls to prayer echoing across the hilltops, the domed mosques dotting the skyline, the bright blue of the Bosphorus), there’s another that’s less than aesthetically pleasing (Beyoğlu’s “main drag” Istiklal Caddesi, the feral cats that accost al fresco diners, toxic fumes of all sorts but especially that of the ubiquitous cigarette smokers). Though it must be said that I’m leaving liking it more than when I arrived – so perhaps I simply haven’t given it sufficient time to reveal its charms.
Those that I have found, while hidden in nooks and crannies, are noteworthy. The up-and-coming waterfront area in Karaköy had a lively sidewalk scene that offered the perfect post-museum, pre-dinner aperitif. And I would be lying if I said I’d had a bad meal – every one was well above average, and two in particular were top-10-of-all-time-level sensational. The first was lunch at a tiny haunt on the Asian side named Ciya Sofrasi, the subject of a New Yorker profile and hence no longer a secret but still every bit worth the trek to get there (which, given that it involves a ferry ride, is rather pleasant in fact), and all the more enjoyable for being set within a district of picturesque food purveyors. The second was at the more upscale and Westernized but still sublime Lokanta Maya, where my octopus entree was perhaps my favorite dish of all time. Only because this is a film- and not food-related blog will I spare you the photos, but some of the more tantalizing dishes included spiced meat stuffed in eggplants skins and the seaweed-like sautéed greens known as samphire. Also well exceeding my expectations was Turkish wine, which is the only kind seemingly on offer but is delightful and affordable in both red and white varietals.
Equally memorable was being in residency at the très stylish 4Floors, which gained even more in atmosphere when the flat above us was taken over by students making a vampire film – a good omen, surely. So while my trip is off to a rather inauspicious start, with my regret meter registering substantially in favor of having chosen Athens over Istanbul, I’m relieved to be leaving the latter with a more positive impression than I had upon arriving, and am eagerly anticipating the cinematic cache awaiting me along my next stops.
Coming attractions: Budapest, Vienna, and the Midnight Sun Film Festival
Issue 8 | March/April 2015 (Philadelphia, PA)
New Media Pedagogy
This week I’m heading to the Society for Cinema and Media Conference, held this year in Montreal, and thus I’ve been reflecting on contemporary trends in and technologies for teaching media studies – sure to be a headlining feature of this year’s conference (I’ve already received this notification about a Participatory Pedagogy collaborative event). In thinking about how I myself rely on on-line sources in the classroom, I thought I’d list just a few of those that have proven most valuable to me, with additions undoubtedly to follow.
1.) Senses of Cinema Great Directors database: Irritatingly alphabetized by filmmakers’ first rather than surnames (I notified an editor about this a year ago, was informed it was a glitch and in the process of being corrected – I’m still waiting), and idiosyncratically curated by contributors and thus by no means comprehensive (still no entry on Atom Egoyan!). Yet those entries that are included are cogent, insightful profiles with useful supplemental bibliographies and filmographies, and function particularly well as undergraduate readings by providing theory- and jargon-light primers on notable auteurs.
2.) Videographic criticism (aka video essays): We write about audiovisual media so it’s only natural to include video within our scholarship, and even to turn our scholarship into videos! Fair use deniers be damned. Video essays vary widely in quality, but some of my recent favorites include Tony Zhou’s riveting essay on the quadrant system using Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), and Kevin B. Lee’s beguiling look at “Rohmer’s Guessing Gazes” using the recently (re)released A Summer’s Tale (1996). See also the Indiewire-sponsored site Press Play, which has a Video Essay Archive. I’m hoping to be able to hone my skills in this burgeoning critical form by attending this workshop at Middlebury next summer.
3.) Media Commons: This self-billed “digital scholarly network” continues to develop, though I remain partial to its initial feature In Media Res, which brings critic-scholars together to share brief essays on contemporary media texts grouped around weekly themes. I’ve contributed on topics as disparate as the penis as feminist tool, theorizing “queer time” in respect to Orange Is the New Black, the dearly departed HBO series Enlightened, Lena Dunham’s body politics, and a lesbian wrestling website, plus my upcoming post on Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009). The resulting comments and conversations have proven an invaluable sounding board as I develop those topics into fully-formed articles. Not to mention how scintillating I’ve found others’ posts to be as well; just a few of my favorites include Kelli Marshall’s post on Louie’s God episode, Bridget Kies’ post on The Golden Girls and marriage equality, and the recent roundtable on the Sony hack.
My most significant implementation of new media pedagogy has been designing a trio of media-making assignments that I have included on a few syllabi to date. The first option students have to choose from is an audio commentary, which they write and record over a sequence of their choosing from a list of films supplementary to our course screenings. A particularly successful model by a former student, on the final sequence from Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, can be viewed here (I’ve kept this student’s identity anonymous because my attempt to locate her was unsuccessful). The second option is a video montage, edited together from clips taken from our class screenings and/or supplementary viewing options, exploring a particular motif, theme, or style. As another model, I’m happy to share this also memorable meditation by my former Wellesley student Emmanuelle Charlier on the theme of sexual fluidity in the films of Lisa Cholodenko. The third option is a video mash-up, in which one or two films are re-edited to produce a re-envisioning of the original work(s). Though it’s not by one of my former students, the viral sensation that played a sizable part in starting the mash-up craze, Brokeback to the Future, still stands as an exceptional example.
The advantages of these projects are fairly self-evident: they give students an alternative to writing academic-style critical analysis papers, they’re representative of the burgeoning new types of film and media scholarship and criticism, and they’re a joy for me to view (and grade). The sole disadvantage that I’ve encountered is that, as with any undertaking requiring technological tinkering (however basic), resources are needed and technology instruction is vital. Ideally the library has DVDs on hand of any films the students can choose to work on, since streamed versions aren’t able to be edited (though students do seem to have their own, no doubt illicit, sources for acquiring downloadable movie files of the less obscure films they have to choose from). Also ideal is a small enough class size that can accommodate the inevitable one-on-one troubleshooting, and that permits me to schedule individual presentations: a work-shopping of “dailies” and/or a screening of final work.
The first step of the project-making process, ripping clips from DVDs, can be done using free open-source software as explained by Professor Jason Mittell in his recent blog post for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The next step, the editing process, requires a bit more preparation and finesse. I was first able to put these projects into effect during my time teaching at Wellesley, and it was in no small part due to the wise, generous consultation that Instructional Technologist extraordinaire Rebecca Darling extended me and my students. It’s been a more uphill venture at my current institution, where the media support staff is less available for instruction and consultation on student projects. There’s the added issue of rapidly evolving options for non-linear editing software; my Wellesley student projects were created using iMovie, which is blessedly simple if basic, but in today’s face-off between Final Cut Pro and Premiere it’s more challenging to get everyone (including myself) up to speed and on the same page. In my present circumstances, because I don’t feel confident enough that students will receive the necessary instruction/support and because I can’t assume they already possess the necessary technical skills, I feel it’s only fair to provide a non-media-making option for this assignment.
In the interest of being a participatory pedagogue, I’m attaching my prompt in full here. And I invite anyone who would be interested in sharing his/her own go-to websites, on-line teaching tools, and inspired media assignments to contact me; perhaps another “Spotlight” feature on Digital Pedagogies is in order.
Speaking of collaborating with and being inspired by colleagues, my UCLA classmate and friend Maya Montañez Smukler, with whom I’ve enjoyed endlessly stimulating film/TV talk since our first chat, back in 2004, about 70s Hollywood, has created this fascinating tribute to the movie-going mecca both past and present that is Berkeley, CA. I thank Maya for this generous contribution to the Itinerant Cinephile, and I thank Maya’s parents for all the (especially R-rated) films they took her to see, or dropped her off for, while she was growing up in Berkeley.
With just over two months to go before my European film research extravaganza, I will be focusing in the upcoming weeks on locating the not-to-be-missed cinemas (and hopefully making initial contact with those that run them) and navigating the ticket-buying process for the five film festivals I’m planning to attend (see Issue 7’s discussion of that rather traumatizing experience at Sundance). But first things first: editing down to 20 minutes and delivering my paper on the politics of representing gay male sex and nudity in HBO’s Looking. My panel at last year’s SCMS, on the theme of time in the films of Richard Linklater, generated a special dossier just published in the new issue of Film Quarterly, so I hope this year’s conference experience will be equally stimulating and productive.
Coming attractions: Curating Spotlight: New Greek Cinema; Exhibition Spotlight: Santa Fe, NM; one-month countdown to Cineuropean expedition.
Issue 7 | February 2015 (Philadelphia, PA)
My return to Sundance, 14 years after I worked as a volunteer at the 2001 festival, was far more luxurious if less climactic. Back then, as a twenty-something grad student, the idea of bedding down in the dormitory that Sundance supplies rent-free to its volunteers and free entry to any screening with available seating in exchange for daily eight-hour shifts seemed like an appealing way to spend ten days during my winter break. My beat was standing at the shuttle stops directing festival-goers, and I still remember those ten days as the most prolonged period of being cold I’ve ever experienced. I went through an economy-sized pack of pocket warmers and innumerable cups of cocoa. It was well worth it, though. I was there for the midnight world premiere of The Blair Witch Project, which I wrote about in Issue 4. I also had a fling with a fellow volunteer, with whom I ended up photographed on the front page of the Park City newspaper (my Google search for the evidence, alas, turned up nothing), and whom I then spent six months dating long distance. And I published a festival report in Senses of Cinema, my first film publication to appear somewhere other than a school newspaper.
Despite my fond memories of those halcyon days, my thirty-something self hasn’t the stamina for that brutal a Sundance boot-camp. This time, my “grown-up Sundance,” I stayed in a condo almost as conveniently located as the Main Street dorm, ate at least one meal per day in a proper restaurant (Park City has some great ones), and felt relieved on the volunteers’ behalf that the weather was relatively balmy. Park City’s location seems to prevent against the proclivity for sprawl, and so the festival still feels easily navigated and fairly intimate.
But I was taken aback by the nerve-wracking, price-inflated free-for-all that is the ticket-buying process, and I only experienced it secondhand. Our group’s planner extraordinaire, Anne Carson Thompson, ably commandeered the seriously challenging task of getting six people tickets to opening weekend screenings that didn’t overlap or promise to disappoint. She did commendably well, all things considered, and we had an overall excellent time complete with star sightings aplenty, such as the Viking-esque Alexander Skarsgård, whom my friend Ann Whittten Bourne informed presented his audience with a real “moral conundrum” in his role as the pedophile in Diary of a Teenage Girl. (It took him a minute, but we think he understood.) I even scored an extra 24 hours of movie-going thanks to the blizzard back east causing the cancellation of my flight home.
In the face of so many film festivals timed in such close proximity, programmers increasingly rely on exclusivity as a draw, touting as many titles as possible as premieres. This isn’t a flaw in theory, but for the typical festival-goer the result is that little word-of-mouth precedes the film. Looking through the Sundance catalog, the only films I’d heard any scuttlebutt about were those in the Spotlight section, culled from titles that had already found favor on the festival circuit. My attempt to do reconnaissance hindered, I was left to sort through the viewing options based on the synopses provided in the catalog and my knowledge of the filmmakers. Both, it turned out, proved misleading. No offense to the programmers, who I presume write the substantial synopses of each film that appear in the full catalog issued upon arrival to those purchasing ticket packages. But the shortened versions of these synopses that appear in the online catalog distributed in advance of the festival are abysmal. Witness the film that I immediately dismissed based on this cringe-inducing premise: “Sangaile allows Auste to discover her most intimate secret, and in the process, finds in her teenage love the only person that truly encourages her to fly.” Who’s to say how I’ll feel once I actually see it, but if the votes for the World Cinema Directing Award for Dramatic Feature are any indication, I judged The Summer of Sangaile incorrectly.
Falling back on what seemed a surer bet for selecting films based on filmmakers I knew and respected didn’t work as swimmingly as I’d have thought (another mark against auteurism). Though Andrew Bujalski’s latest appears on my top five list below, and overall is an entirely endearing film, it doesn’t come close, in my opinion, to what he achieved with his previous work. I felt far less generous about Leslye Headland’s sophomore effort Sleeping with Other People (none of the bite, heart, or feminist solidarity and spirit of 2012’s Bachelorette), and just plain disappointed by Mississippi Grind (from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writer-director team behind the indelibly searing Half Nelson), Nasty Baby (from Sebastián Silva, responsible for the luminescent Gaby Hoffman-Michael Cera film Crystal Fairy), and The End of the Tour (from James Ponsoldt, director of the devastating indies Smashed and The Spectacular Now).
Hoping to add a few extra films to my docket, I looked into the offerings on eBay and Craig’s List and was shocked to see tickets routinely going for $75. At those prices, it makes one reconsider springing for the all-inclusive passes or attempting to score a press pass (both of which I’d have considered had I been staying for the entire festival). Another surprise, implemented since my previous time at Sundance, was the waitlist – another nail-biting experience that relies on split-second timing, an impeccable Internet connection, and a willingness to stand on line. Again, I’m not opposed to it in theory; on the contrary, with virtually every screening sold out a month in advance, I appreciate that those running the festival have constructed as fair a means as possible of ensuring that every seat gets sold while also underselling the aforementioned scalpers.
And yet, standing in my umpteenth line with fingers crossed that I’d get in to the premiere of Bujalski’s Results, I felt seized by the perceived injustice of a theater-full of patrons there on account of the film’s stars, Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders, in contrast to my own Bujalski devotion reaching back to his first feature Funny Ha Ha and its pioneering influence on the movement (or moment) known as Mumblecore (which I just happen to have written about). As ridiculous as it sounds, Sundance brought out this possessiveness and resentment in me; I couldn’t care less about what was going on behind the velvet ropes on Main Street where after-parties were in full swing, but I felt very strongly that those seeking admission to Bujalski’s latest should be tested on their knowledge of the director’s oeuvre. Crazy, I know.
So without further ado, here is my Sundance top 5:
- Take Me to the River – Directed by first-timer and UCLA grad Matt Sobel, about a gay teenager’s reckoning with family secrets at a Nebraska reunion, with especially unnerving performances by Josh Hamilton (as a menacing redneck!) and Ursula Parker (Louis CK’s younger daughter on Louie!). Hearing lead Robin Weigert (Deadwood, Concussion) speak during the Q&A cemented my love for her and this film.
- Cloro – Another first-time director – this one a NYU grad, Lamberto Sanfelice, working with the mesmerizing actress Sara Serraioccco. With its desolate ski resort setting, besieged siblings, and synchronized swimming sequences, it initially struck me as a Sister/Water Lilies mash-up but grew into something far more surprising and touching.
- The Tribe – 130 minutes in the un-translated company of sign-language-using students at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, with enough horrors that it made the gut-wrenching Sarah Silverman-vehicle I Smile Back look like a PG-rated romcom comparatively. I am still recovering from this one, but I will never forget it.
- Results – I add this one grudgingly, given the unacknowledged sense of entitlement described above and the knowledge that I might have opted for the cross-scheduled Beaver Trilogy Part IV. And yet the bizarro pairing of Kevin Corrigan and Guy Pearce somehow works, and Bujalski’s take on fitness fanatics is wry yet sympathetic.
- Unexpected – From filmmaker Kris Swanberg, and another Cobie Smulders-starrer. A small-scaled drama about the relationship between a pregnant teacher wary of motherhood and her also pregnant student, it gets truthfully at how women’s identity gets compromised through parenting and at the irreconcilable barrier of socioeconomic status.
And, perhaps the more important list, the Top 10 films (in no particular order) that got away – i.e., those that I heard promising things about but didn’t make it to, and thus await with great anticipation:
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl– This year’s Whiplash, it swept the top dramatic awards.
- The Wolfpack – Another winner (Jury Prize for U.S. doc), it’s got the unbelievable premise of being about a real-life Dogtooth family.
- The Overnight – When I found myself standing in the waitlist line for a film starring Taylor Schilling, I realized I’d caught Sundance fever on top of a cold. I didn’t get in, and the tantalizing buzz that followed has haunted me.
- Western – This was touted as an exceptional verité documentary, about life on the Texas-Mexican border.
- Slow West – Not gravitating towards Westerns as a rule, I now regret overlooking this Michael Fassbender-starrer that won the Jury prize for World Cinema Dramatic Feature.
- Dreamcatcher – Knowing filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s reputation for brilliant observational documentaries focused on women’s lives, I should have made more effort to see her latest, a portrait of prostitution that won the Directing Award for World Docs.
- Entertainment – One of the more divisive films of the fest, judging from the Twitter-chat, but I have a hunch its dark tone and John C. Reilly performance would work for me.
- Tangerine – Executive produced by the Duplass brothers and filmed entirely on an iPhone, about transgender Los Angelenos on Christmas Eve, it was a surprise hit of the festival.
- The Royal Road – LGBTQ film archivist/advocate Jenni Olson directed what sounds to be a transporting experimental journey through her own history and that of California.
- Digging for Fire + Mistress America – These share a slot because my sadness at missing them is tempered by my certainty that Joe Swanberg’s and Noah Baumbach’s respective latest will get a release before long.
Needless to say, from my arrival at the festival, when I felt tortured at having missed the highly divisive The Bronze (featuring a sex scene of immediately notorious and apparently gymnastic proportions, or contortions), to my departing Sophie’s Choice of the much-touted Take Me to the River (which I hardly regret; see it’s #1 placement above) over Swanberg’s latest Digging for Fire (which was as well-received as I’d hoped/feared), I was in a constant state of what I’ve come to think of as “Sundance remorse.” Also fueling my sense of regret was nostalgia, no doubt rose-tinted, for what Sundance used to be – to me, during that frigid yet enchanted stint as a volunteer, and also generally, before there were waitlists and scalpers and model-actress-whatevers prancing down Main Street in stilettos.
My symptoms also stemmed, I have to acknowledge, from an awareness that I might have chosen the professional path of film criticism and/or festival programming rather than the path I did choose: a career in academe. When I was last at Sundance, I was months away from obtaining my Master’s in Cinema Studies from NYU, yet to depart on the Everest-scale climb that is the journey to obtaining a Ph.D. but equally unsure of my footing up the critic-programmer path. (Shout-outs to my UCLA colleagues Sudeep Sharma and Heidi Zwicker are much deserved, for having scaled that peak to reach the level of Associate Programmers for Sundance.) I was sure of my passion for film and confident about my writing ability, but otherwise uncertain whether to follow my longing to be a critic-programmer or what seemed the more pragmatic route into teaching and a tenure-track academic appointment. Given that the latter has thus far eluded me, I wonder whether the path I chose was in fact the safe route, as I told myself at the time.
While I love teaching, and still have the opportunity to write criticism and program the occasional screening event, I found myself amid the Sundance euphoria doing some tough reflecting on what might have been. I don’t want to romanticize the underpaid, often tenuously-employed (more even that teachers) status of contemporary critics and festival personnel. I suppose what I really long for is the opportunity to do both, to not have had to choose. Yet few people manage to keep a foot firmly in both camps. Those that do – the indefatigable Ruby Rich, for example – are exceptional.
To end on a hopeful note, though the year has only just begun, I’ve already seen three films that promise to earn spots on my Best 15 of ’15 list – though I didn’t see them at Sundance, and in fact all three were officially released in 2014. I was tempted to revise my 20 Best Films of 2014 list to include them, but I opted to maintain the integrity of my viewing experience and save them for next year’s. I’ll be writing more about Appropriate Behavior, Desiree Akhavan’s flawlessly rendered debut feature, because it’s a film told from a bisexual woman’s perspective. In other words, it’s the film I’ve been looking for all my life, and it’s now on VOD (and to be released on DVD in April).
The other two films are, in a way, opposite sides of the same coin: sharp take-downs of capitalism that use humanism rather than preachiness to convey the complexities of a system that normalizes human exploitation. J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year portrays the owner’s perspective, in this case a striving husband-wife team forced to confront their moral compass when their business and family are threatened. Leads Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are magnetic, and Chastain’s wardrobe swoon-inducing. Two Days, One Night, directed by the Dardenne brothers and featuring a searing lead performance by Marion Cotillard, depicts the lowly worker’s experience of utter vulnerability and desperation. It is one of the most affecting cinematic depictions I’ve seen of the cruelties of capitalism, how it makes decent people act inhumanely, but how interpersonal interaction can sometimes persevere to get people to do the right thing. It is, in a word, sublime. So despite my Sundance miscalculations, I feel buoyed by these riches already encountered and the prospect of my Sundance missed encounters coming down the pipeline before too long.
Coming attractions: Exhibition Spotlight: Berkeley, CA; exploring how digital technologies and on-line resources enhance film and media studies.
Issue 6 | December 2014-January 2015 (Cambridge, MA)
Death to “the death of cinema”
The impetus for my Itinerant Cinephile project was in part inspired by and intended as antidote to the voluble proclamations of the so-called “death of cinema.” My podcast listening lately has only further reminded me just how inaccurate an assessment that is. Taking stock of my iTunes and Earwolf subscription queues, I was reminded of the richness of cinematic discourse at present in the proliferation of podcasts featuring film buffs discussing everything from “The Business” to “How Did This Get Made?” By no means is every podcast worthy of one’s valuable time; several wind up illustrating just why film criticism is a writer’s medium, and there is a severe discrepancy in the number of women discussants. But certainly I’ve been feeling sated by the quantity and quality of what’s currently available. For a list of podcasts recommended specifically for cinephiles, check out Indiewire’s “best of” list.
Speaking of “best of” round-ups, the past month (or three) also testifies to film, and film appreciation, being alive and well with the onslaught of year end “Top Films of 2014” lists descending, and with even President Obama weighing in on his favorite of the year (Boyhood). Full disclosure: my own annotated Top 20 appears here.
Then, in the final days of 2014, came the controversy surrounding the release of The Interview, which though not radical on the relative scale of film content or style nonetheless has served importantly as a rallying cry around freedom of speech and movie-going as an act of political resistance. The organization Art House Convergence deserves special recognition for its part in rallying the art house troops, and I was especially gratified to see that the Plaza Theater, oldest operating cinema in my hometown of Atlanta, was at the helm of those theaters that stepped up. And shockingly, I even found The Interview showing at a theater near where I spent Christmas with family in southwest Florida: the Prado in Bonita Springs.
As if I needed another reason to detest corporate chain movie theaters, their caving in to what I imagine was pressure from their lawyers to back out of their contracts with Sony sealed the deal. Though having recently spent a miserable few hours in an AMC theater – and miserable not just for having to sit through Gone Girl – I was already thoroughly convinced. And please don’t ask me to recount my sticky-floored experience of seeing Top Five at the misleadingly named “Apple Cinema” here in Cambridge (needless to say, Steve Jobs’ style genius was nowhere on display). My enduring love of movie theaters by no means extends to the mega-plex. Indeed it’s dismaying just how repellent they’ve become, made all the more noticeable for how luxury theaters and art houses have come to spoil us with their various amenities (no pre-show advertisements and alcohol sales being my favorites; reserved seating I’m less enamored of). Which reminds me, I also owe a much-deserved shout-out to Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre for their advance screening of Inherent Vice on 35mm last month. While I wasn’t crazy about P.T.A.’s latest, it was one of those memorable gatherings of folks who care deeply about film and its proper exhibition that I’m always heartened by taking part in.
Issue 5 featured the first in what I hope will be two recurring features for The Itinerant Cinephile: a Curating Spotlight highlighting recent films from national or regional locations, and an Exhibition Spotlight profiling independent and art house cinemas in select locations. For the latter, look out for new entries on Berkeley, CA and Santa Fe, NM in upcoming issues. At present, I’m thrilled to present a second roundup of “new wave” European filmmaking, this one compiled by Yaffa Fredrick, my former Wellesley College student and now Managing Editor of the journal @WorldPolicy, and focusing on recent Turkish cinema.
I’m especially excited to delve into Yaffa’s list, given that Istanbul is the first destination on my itinerary for next summer’s research expedition. In its more ambitiously scaled proposal stage, this trip was to have spanned the globe and also taken in new waves in Asia and South America. While I very much hope to make it on to those destinations – in particular Argentina, Chile, and Thailand – to check out their new wave film scenes before too long, when forced by time and more reasonable budgeting assessments to scale back my itinerary I felt the greatest lure coming from Europe. I find it fascinating that some of the nations hardest hit by the economic downturn and resultant austerity measures – Greece, Portugal, Romania – are those whose recent film output has been most prolific and has received the greatest recognition. What’s greater still is just how conscientious these “new waves” are in addressing Europe’s financial woes and other social turmoil of late, as Larry Rohter’s New York Times article explores, and how a good number of these emerging filmmakers are women – from the new generation of Turkish filmmakers highlighted in a recent TIFF Cinematheque series to the names who have catapulted to the top of my and others’ “best of” lists in the last decade: Maren Ade, Andrea Arnold, Mia Hansen-Løve, Joanna Hogg, Sophie Letourneur, Ursula Meier, Céline Sciamma, Justine Triet, and Athina Tsangari, to name a few.
Not that this vanguard of women filmmakers is trampling the floodgates of art cinema, European or otherwise; Cinemascope’s “Best Fifty Filmmakers Under Fifty” list from 2012 included only six women. It’s frequently noted how hard a time women directors have getting work in Hollywood, but the barriers to entry are formidable within art and independent filmmaking as well. Moreover, it’s critical to note that these exciting new waves of European filmmaking are occurring in spite of crippled funding sources – and in some nations those cutbacks are posing a severe threat to the health of domestic film industries, as Vanessa Erazo documents about Portugal.
The tradition throughout Europe of nurturing homegrown film industries through protectionist practices (e.g. France’s l’exception culturelle) is entrenched. At its worst, European filmmakers have been known to take Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim, “Film is only made for one or two people,” hyper-literally. As Anne Jäckel describes in European Film Industries, this subsidy mentality – tellingly known as “the French way” – can result in out-of-control auteurism, a self-destructive leniency with the (particularly financial) details of a film’s production, exacerbated by too casual a mode of script development and too little investment in distribution and marketing (BFI 2003: 14-15). But at its best, Europe’s subsidy system has kept it, if not thriving, trucking along despite the massive competitive advantage that the Hollywood industrial complex has enjoyed globally since World War I. Given Hollywood’s hegemony, it remains imperative to credit the importance of art cinemas operators as well as their comrades-in-cinema – archivists, critics, and film festival programmers – that this new spate of films depends upon for special series and retrospectives like the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s The Closer Look: Recent Czech Cinema series and appreciations such as Richard Brody’s recent appraisal of new French cinema.
Hence my own desire to report on contemporary European cinema, and my plans to fully immerse myself in so doing come summer. The last month has seen me scurrying to confirm travel and accommodation details for my journey, and it is with enormous relief that I now report having them nearly finalized. My itinerary is set, with some exciting additions (the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Lapland, Finland and the Edinburgh Film Festival), one disappointing deletion (Romania’s Transylvania Film Festival), and only a couple remaining questions (namely, whether I’ll be accepted to present at the Console-ing Passions Conference in Dublin and the Screen Conference in Glasglow – fingers crossed).
For anyone who ever contemplates embarking on this kind of journey, I feel I’ve earned the right to extend two warnings: prepare for hidden costs when budgeting, and get ready for a bitch of a time arranging transportation. Whereas booking accommodation (I’m splitting my time between hotels and Airbnb flats, depending on length of stay) has been relatively manageable, navigating the dizzying timetables and quicksand of discount airline restrictions has been, well, nauseating. While I was hoping to do some traveling by train, it looks like only my shortest routes (Budapest to Vienna, Edinburgh to Glasgow) are feasible, given the expense (comparable to non-discount airfares) and duration (far in excess of plane travel).
Given the hours I’ve logged scanning airline schedules and puzzling out routes and neighborhoods, I’m thoroughly impressed by reports such as this one, by critic Neil Young, of having traveled to 26 film festivals internationally in a calendar year. As I am by his mentioning that “most professional film-journalists and festival-programmers attend perhaps 10-12 festivals a year, 15 at a push.” Even if they are contracting the organizing out to others, I’m still in awe of their fortitude. In just under two weeks, I’ll be heading off to Sundance for a three-day fling of movie-going that has required some work on my part, sizing up the catalog offerings and assembling a synchronized plan of action. But far more intensive labor is being performed by my old friend and Salt Lake City resident Anne Carson Thompson, who for the past several years has coordinated a January reunion in Park City. I’m thrilled to be joining the group this year, and am very much in Anne Carson’s debt for the condo-renting and ticket buying/trading/selling that will make it possible.
I don’t anticipate that every – or any – festival I’m attending this summer will be as much of a “shitshow,” to use Anne Carson’s term, as Sundance. And I don’t regret not taking the advice of well-meaning pals who responded to my laments of feeling overwhelmed by all the trip planning by suggesting I hire a student assistant to help. While fully aware that I tend to be rather more opinionated than most, I believe the determination of where to bed down for a week in Bologna requires a subtler touch than the Xeroxing of course readings. Yet the laborious process has also brought into full relief just how endlessly indecisive I can be, hardly ideal for a trip containing as many possibilities as this. I’ve dithered for months over whether to make the hike to the Arctic circle – not a cheap or easy place to get – for the Midnight Sun festival, and finally my romantic imagining of what it holds won out. I don’t think I’ll be sorry.
The next phase of planning is far more exciting than scanning airline schedules and Airbnb sites. I’ve discovered the periodical Cineuropa to be invaluable in keeping me up to date on the European cinema scene, and I’ve begun reaching out to contacts for advice. I’m grateful for the recommendations already given to me by Skadi Loist, founder of the Film Festival Research Network and a Hamburg-based critic and scholar. Alas I’m not going to be able to avail myself of Skadi’s recommendations to attend the Munich Film Festival or the NECS Conference in Poland, as I just couldn’t manage to fit those pieces into the puzzle. But I appreciate these and any other leads of people working in European film archiving, festival programming, and cinema operating – just send them my way via Twitter (@cinemariasf) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Until next time, some encouraging words from an esteemed poet/cinephile…
“It is a divine precedent you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!” – Frank O’Hara, “To the Film Industry in Crisis” (1957)
Coming attractions: Sundance 2015!
Issue 5 | November 2014 (Philadelphia, PA)
An elegy for celluloid film and its projection | An appreciation of the art (and necessity) of film curating
When I left off in the last issue, I had been discussing what some have described as a glut of contemporary indie film production, fueled by the proliferation of film festivals as well as the alternative distribution and exhibition channels made possible through digitalization. Curiously, where some see a glut, others see “the death of cinema” – so rendered by the onslaught of Internet/gaming/social media and television’s new(est) golden age. Although, as A.O. Scott discusses in his article “Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?”, that allegedly imminent demise and the nostalgia it invokes is a recurring trope of cinephilia and a persistent symptom of the wistful Weltschmerz suffered by many a cinephile.
To be fair, those ringing the death-knell are often lamenting the literal disappearance of cinema, i.e. celluloid film and its projection, and I am certainly sympathetic to this loss and inspired by the efforts of those who valiantly try to stave it off, Quentin Tarantino’s recent commandeering of the near-to-my-heart New Beverly Cinema for one. Another, whose Boston Phoenix profile called him “the most exacting movie projectionist in Boston” (though I’d argue for at least the East Coast) is David Kornfeld, in charge of projection at the Somerville Theater in Massachusetts. Anyone who doubts the difference in appearance of a film projected on celluloid versus digitally would emerge certain of the former’s superiority if given the opportunity to have David give you a side-by-side comparison. I had that opportunity as well as two semesters’ worth of comparable confirmation that movies exhibited under optimal conditions can capture the attention and the imagination of even the most technology-jaded and habitually multi-tasking audience member – the millennial college student – when David projected 35mm film prints from the Harvard Film Archive for two iterations of my undergraduate course “Virgins, Vamps, & Camp: Gender and Sexuality in Classical Hollywood Cinema.” Harvard, and Boston, are lucky to have him – but he’s tragically one of a dying breed of expert technicians whose craft is made increasingly obsolete by the changeover to digital.
As Ty Burr’s recent article on how video-on-demand affects art house cinemas’ programming and bottom line describes, these specialized venues are receding in disproportion to the number of specialty (or at least indie) films deserving of theatrical exhibition. The chokehold on art house exhibitors is compounded by the increasingly exploitative economics of indie production and distribution that filmmaker Mark Duplass likens to Reaganomics and Beanie Barnes warns is turning the indie film industry into America’s next Wal-Mart. Yet another, if far less fraught, reason to feel conflicted about indie production reaching a saturation point: it’s increasingly difficult to figure out what to watch. The role of the critic in the digital age, as Richard Brody recently ruminated, has become ever more critical and complex – even as, with tragic irony, so many critics have had their bylines snuffed out.
Having attended several screenings of the Philadelphia Film Festival last month, I was reminded of the tricky equation of calculating which films to see based on word-of-mouth, personal interest, and the festival’s own promotional hype (if you’ve ever read a festival catalog, you know that they make every film sound like Citizen Kane). Out of the eight films I saw, I found two (Clouds of Sils Maria and Force Majeure) to be absolutely stunning, another two (Tu Dors Nicole and Girlhood) definitely worth seeing, and four others that are best forgotten. Not bad, considering. But I could still use a better algorithm than this (or the one in use at Netflix) to sift through the slush pile of new indies.
Cinephiles are infamously devoted list-makers, and I’ve been doing my part to continue this tradition with my own annual “Best of” and occasional thematically-inspired lists. Critics’ polls like Film Comment’s annual 50 Best and End of the Decade lists and Sight & Sound’s recent 50 Greatest Documentaries of All Time provoke in me the kind of fervency that distinguishes us cinephiles from the less fanatical viewer. Speaking for myself, the allure that has me poring over these obviously subjective screeds doesn’t derive from feeling any stake in the hierarchical vying for first place or even (usually, at least) eagerness to see a favorite lauded or dissatisfaction at finding a beloved snubbed. Sure, it’s gratifying to see your tastes confirmed and your personal discoveries revealed to be shared by others. But more than that, I’m made giddy by the lure of new discoveries, distilled down to a manageable number, and endorsed by folks with whom I don’t always agree but with whom I share this unshakeable film bug.
Tasked with the enviable challenge of learning all I can about 21st century independent cinema – especially that of Europe, given my trip’s itinerary – I’m more appreciative than ever of those who make the effort to single out thoughtfully those films most deserving of my limited time, and who care enough about keeping film (and film-going) alive that they actively participate in the public conversation of film curating. Without further ado, I introduce the first of an anticipated series of lists devoted to designating the “best of” selected 21st century national cinemas, this one courtesy of my cinephile comrade Ilya Glazkov (with whom you can share your thoughts via Twitter @IlGlaz).
Calling all curators for “best of” lists for other contemporary New Waves, particularly those from nations on my itinerary with contemporary film scenes I’ve newly landed on: Turkey, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Finland.
As a second new and I hope recurring feature, I’d like to introduce another curated list, this one focusing on movie-going in a particular city or region. So please also consider yourself invited to submit your own compilation of favored cinematic haunts from your hometown, adoptive city, or preferred place for seeing films. Our debut is courtesy of a former student and Twin Cities native, Mary Durden, with whom you can follow up about all things (or at least movie-going things) Minnesotan via Twitter @medurden.
Back in local news, in addition to getting to attend Philly’s film festival and making my first trip to Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, another cinephile highlight of the last month was a talk by Chris Cagle, titled “The In-Between Aesthetics of European Festival Documentary,” as part of the Colloquium sponsored by Penn’s Cinema Studies Program. I was interested to learn that the “Slow Film” style of contemporary narrative cinema that has an impassioned following (and which I wrote about in regards to Mumblecore) is also suffusing documentaries exhibited along the European film festival circuit, and I look forward to seeing some on next summer’s research trip – especially as a good many never get U.S. distribution. In the meantime, Professor Cagle was good enough to post on his blog some of the titles he discussed and showed tantalizing clips from, and recommends the Doc Alliance streaming site as a means of viewing some of the harder to find ones.
In closing, a reminder that we are currently in the midst of the richest stretch of film offerings all year – the fall lead-up to awards nominations and those aforementioned “best of” lists – so with it a plea to patronize a theater, preferably one that cares about curating and projecting films with care, near you.
Coming attractions: Commemorating Europe’s “cultural exception,” contemplating the new waves of 21st century European filmmaking…
Issue 4 | October 2014 (Philadelphia, PA)
The good, the bad, and the ugly of film festivals and indie distribution |
The cinephile highlight of my first month as a Philadelphia resident was undoubtedly the screening of Lost Highway (a film that should only ever be seen on the big screen and with optimal audio so as to fully appreciate its phenomenal soundtrack), preceded by a Q&A with David Lynch (blessedly low on TM proselytizing), that I attended at the stunning Prince Theatre. The evening definitely earns a place in my pantheon of best film-going experiences of all time, and I say that not just because I need to justify waiting on line for two hours to get a standby ticket. Less momentous but just as welcomed was my discovery of three (count ’em!) Landmark Cinema theaters within walking distance of my apartment, so I should be well-fixed for arthouse options. And I’ll be positively awash in offerings this month, because the Philadelphia Film Festival is headed to town October 16-26. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the films that I’ve been hearing about through the festival grapevine over the past year (Tu Dors Nicole, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, 52 Tuesdays) as well as some by directors I admire (Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood). It helps to make up for the fact that I’m going to be missing Athina Tsangari’s presentation of one of my favorite films of the last decade, Attenberg, at the Harvard Film Archive on October 17.
And speaking of festivals, I just booked my ticket for Sundance! Alas, after much deliberation, I had to conclude that as beneficial to my research as it would have been to have attended the Art House Convergence conference taking place the week before, being present for the first week of my spring semester classes needed to take precedence. I’ll hope to make it next year. As it is I’ll only be in Park City for a long weekend, but I plan to make the best of it. I haven’t been to the festival since 2001, when I was a Master’s student at NYU and went as a festival volunteer, trading long, cold unpaid hours of working outside for free accommodation in the “dorms” on Main Street and all the movies I could get in to. I still remember the feeling of nervous anticipation turning to stunned terror at the sold-out world premiere midnight screening of The Blair Witch Project, when no one had yet realized it was a hoax (its now-legendary Internet promotion campaign billed it as a true story). This time around I’ll be experiencing the festival in relative luxury, sans hand and foot warmers and traveling with a group of high school friends who have been going for the last few years and have it down to a science. I’ve been wanting to join them for ages, and am finally coming on board; I think it was their selfie with Mark Ruffalo that I received last year that proved the ultimate motivator.
As for my trip next summer, I’m finding it rather frustrating that some festivals and conferences (not you, Console-ing Passions!) are taking a while to confirm their dates. My tentative itinerary having become rather convoluted, it actually came as a relief that the Edinburgh Film Festival was taken out of the running by its having been moved to August. A pity, since I haven’t been to Scotland, but perhaps the Screen conference held annually in Glasgow will provide an opportunity, dates willing (and still unannounced). I’m still holding out hope of going to the Midnight Sun Film Festival, which has announced its dates (June 10-14), and something about how stubbornly it has lodged itself in my imagination makes me think I should prioritize it over other options. It’s all to say that my precise route remains hazy, but I hope to have a firm itinerary by end of November so that I can begin the arduous process of booking travel and accommodation during some of the precious free time I’ll have over the winter break.
On the subject of film festivals, I’ve already gestured at their increasing ubiquity (really it seems as though every city and (semi-)picturesque town is obligated to host one), and a recent New York Times article marveled at the profusion of niche festivals catering to obscure interests and oddball tastes. Some festivals do continue to consider it their mission to give visibility to films that might otherwise not see the light of day; the Toronto International Film Festival, for example, recently instituted a policy that reserves the first four days of programming for films not yet screened in North America (though this exclusivity also works in Toronto’s favor, allowing it to bid for and boast of having more premieres). But in the case of city-sponsored festivals, a good many serve simply to showcase commercial films already guaranteed to get a decent-sized theatrical run and to enable films with unknown directors and casts to rack up awards that will serve as an alternative mode of branding during the promotional campaign.
Yet I’m prevented from regarding this, the hyper-proliferation of festivals and (in many cases) their unabashed Hollywood-ization, with much cynicism — especially when I hear about something like a queer film festival in Appalachia. (Though I did cringe at hearing that the prestigious Walker Art Center in St. Louis was mounting an Internet Cat Video Film Festival.) Just as I have to shrug and smile when I hear of increasingly outlandish modes of exhibition (see Issue 2’s discussion of London’s Hot Tub Cinema, newly imported to Brooklyn), screening and sound quality be damned. For one thing, unlike the questionable socioeconomics of the trend for state initatives for film production, festivals are good business for the towns and residents that host them. And for another thing, as the founder of one more idiosyncratic spin on movie-going, Secret Cinema, noted (in a talk he gave in Toronto) about his organization having “gone from doing 1 screening with 400 people to our last screening with 85K people. And what this shows is the thirst, this desire above all to come together.”
So I’m hard put to disparage there being “too many” film festivals or wacky exhibition schemes. Whether there are “too many movies,” as a much-debated think-piece by Manohla Dargis dared to claim about contemporary indie film’s allegedly acquisition-driven super-saturation, is a more vexed question for me. While I agree with Dargis’ premise that the indie sector of the film industry should focus on curation over consumption, I would go further to say that curation should happen at all levels and as the responsibility of all persons working in the industry – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the New York Times, for example, should modernize their systems of nomination and reviewing and no longer make a theatrical opening grounds for award eligibility and (guaranteed) coverage. Theatre owners should also be more discerning in their programming, trusting critics and their own instincts over the hard-sell tactics of “Indiewood” distributors; after all, this isn’t the classical studio era when exhibitors were powerless to decide what to put on the marquee.
And though my project’s primary purpose is to extoll the importance of brick-and-mortar movie theaters and collective movie-going in an age of digital distribution and individualized viewing, I see great value in the missions of web curators offering subscription-based film series such as Fandor, Film Movement, and MUBI, which frequently feature films not available on Netflix, as well as in the service provided by on-demand platforms like, well, Netflix. It’s not as clear that indie filmmakers are as well served financially by this mode of distribution, as another recent New York Times article reported, but as a means towards acquiring notice and credibility these alternative venues for screening indies are proving invaluable.
Until next month, vive le cinéma!
Coming attractions: Dispelling the “death of cinema” myth but grappling with the surplus of contemporary independent films and new viewing options…
Issue 3 | September 2014 (Philadelphia, PA)
Foraging for films in Philly and finding an old friend |
There hasn’t been a lot of time for trip planning this last month, on account of having moved to Philadelphia to start a teaching position at University of the Arts. Though of course I quickly began scouting for independent cinemas and other film events of note, and so far have been pleased to see enough options to keep me satisfied. I’ve already become a member of the International House, where the Film Program line-up for the coming month ranges compellingly from L’Eclisse to Purple Rain. This weekend I took in a double feature, two films from the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema series that just concluded its run there. Not only are the films, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance (1987) and Krzysztof Zanussi’s The Constant Factor (1980), hugely inspiring to my project but so is the collaboration between Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the Polish National Film, Television, and Theatre School in Lodz, and the beautiful digital restorations that were its result. I admit to being under-informed when it comes to Polish cinema, loving the early works that Kieslowski and Roman Polanski made before leaving for points west but familiar with very little else. As luck would have it, I may have a highly motivating reason to learn more: the NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies), which I mentioned in Issue 2, has announced that the site of its 2015 conference will be the University of Lodz. Exact dates forthcoming, but I certainly intend to submit a paper proposal and, if accepted, work Poland into my route…somehow.
Back to the subject of my new home base of Philadelphia, I cannot help thinking how fateful it is that my arrival coincides with David Lynch’s return, forty-seven years after he came here as an art student, for the first museum retrospective of his paintings at PAFA. (For more information, read this New York Times piece.) You could say that Lynch was the first filmmaker I fell in love with, in the sense that I was thoroughly disarmed by seeing his films at an impressionable age – particularly in the case of Blue Velvet, the first of his that I saw, an extraordinary experience not just in the sense of opening my eyes to what cinema could be but also to a sensibility and world view so different from any to which I’d yet been exposed (having grown up in the culturally and otherwise conservative suburban South), it was staggering.
Immediately upon its airing on TV (network TV, no less) in 1990, I went on to become one of those Twin Peaks obsessives (How obsessed, you ask? I owned a well-thumbed copy of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer). For my money it’s the show that changed everything (as much as any one show can) in terms of paving the way for the “quality television” of today, and it still makes my day when a student tells me he or she has discovered the show and loves it. As we (Lynch and I) have grown older, my heart has stayed mostly true: I continue to think Wild at Heart is, as I found it to be while in my teenage throes of Twin Peaks-era devotion, one of the most romantic films ever made, and I believe Mulholland Drive is the best film of the 21st century thus far. But I have never grown fond of Eraserhead, and I endured Inland Empire twice to conclude sadly that it is a raving mess. And while I find his cult of personality for the most part endearing, the Transcendental Meditation patter he’s prone to stretches my patience. Yet I credit his vision with having grabbed me so intensely that, more than any other filmmaker, he compelled me to want to make my life about film.
So on this, the event of his return, all of the other cultural institutions in the city seem to have convened to welcome him back, with events such as the Bryn Mawr Film Institute event I mentioned I will be attending, to a talk with Lynch after a screening of Lost Highway (sold out but I intend to make an effort at entry) as part of a Philadelphia Film Society retrospective, to screenings at International House of films that inspired Lynch – including one of my personal favorites, Kubrick’s Lolita.
It seems I’ve been sidetracked from this blog’s central purpose – to document and discuss my ongoing plans for next summer’s trip – but again there aren’t many new developments to report. On Wednesday, which is officially 331 days before the end of my trip, I will be able to purchase (using American Advantage miles) the return portion of my ticket. On doing so for the first trans-Atlantic leg, I encountered a hidden fee that I hadn’t bargained on when budgeting my trip. It goes by the name “carrier-imposed fees” and what it amounts to is highway robbery, literally – airlines (in this case, British Air) tack it on to flights crossing the Atlantic, and because my miles are through American who is partnered with BA, I’m forced to pay a hefty sum (around $250 each way) on top of the regular taxes and fees, on top of my hard-earned miles.
Having decided to fly into Istanbul, I’ve settled on flying out of Paris. Initially this was to have been my first destination, so designated because of its reputation as the world’s capital of cinephila and because, speaking the language a bit, I figured it would be a soft place to land. This turned out not to be practical given festival dates and such, but I imagine it will instead provide a happy ending given the sheer number of independent cinemas the city boasts (though I recently learned that Toronto tops that list). And I very much hope to be able to attend at least one of these en plein air screenings in the Parc de la Villette, mounted nightly for one month starting in late July.
With my trip’s bookends in place (and not shiftable without incurring more hefty fees), I will hope to hear confirmed dates for film festivals soon and will begin the process of establishing contact with festival-runners and other folks whom I hope to connect with along my route. Should you know any European-based film programmers or cinema owners/managers, or should you be one yourself, please reach out via email or Twitter. Much more to come on the planning front – it still feels overwhelming – but at least the trans-Atlantic journey is set, and I’ve still got leftover miles (which will come in handy for Itinerant Cinephile: The Sequel).
Until next month, I will leave you with some words from the man of the hour, Maestro Lynch, from Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity:
“Cinema is a language. It can say things – big, abstract things. And I love that about it…When I catch an idea for a film, I fall in love with the way cinema can express it.
Coming attractions: Surveying the expanse of contemporary film festivals and indie film distribution…
Issue 2 | August 2014 (Cambridge, MA)
Foraging for cinemas across Europe | Finding inspiration | (Finally!) formulating my route
Having already foraged for festivals and conferences (see Issue 1), I’m now beginning to research independent cinemas and alternative film series along my prospective route. I’ll be prioritizing festivals (see the aforementioned “most bang for my buck” phenomenon) and conferences (see the aforementioned “funding support from my home institution” clause), but even so I’ll have to make some tough choices. As another process of elimination, I plan to apply to obtain press credentials and present papers at those festivals and conferences on my wanted list, and allow the results to determine ultimately which I’ll attend.
Among my inspirations for conceiving this project are three figures who also have undertaken cinephile journeys, though in an admittedly more intrepid vein: the veteran indie film producer-distributor Jon Pierson, who moved his family to Fiji for a year to run the remote 180 Meridian Cinema, chronicled in the 2005 documentary Reel Paradise; Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno’s 2009 documentary Sacred Places, about another struggling theater in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley’s year-long traveling project to watch foreign television.
Other inspirations came in the form of theaters I’ve been a habitué of over the years, like the New Beverly, Cinefamily, and American Cinematheque in Hollywood and the Brattle, Coolidge, and Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge. And more recently, in the alternative theatrical sites and styles responsible for a revival in movie-going, threatened by the annoyances of the multiplex and conveniences of home viewing. One of the key strategies for art/indie cinemas to stay in business has been by selling food and alcohol, as with the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn and the inspired Cocktails & Conversation series at Popcorn Noir in Easthampton, MA. Another lure is to stage screenings in incongruous settings: cemeteries (Cinespia at Hollywood Forever), rooftops (Brooklyn-based Rooftop Films), even hot tubs (London’s Hot Tub Cinema)! Though what these last three evince in ingenuity and cinephile community-building, they lack in audiovisual excellence, given the challenging sightlines and crowd noise.
Another enticing but elitist model is the growth of exclusive membership screenings such as the New York Times Film Club, where annual fees starting at $125 buy you access to premieres followed by “talkbacks” with filmmakers and casts. As with most film festival and boutique cinemas (not to mention commercial multi-plexes), movie-going has become the province of those with ample disposable income. I’ve noted to make it a special focus of my project to be on the lookout for and to spotlight those venues and offerings affordable to all cinephiles.
So I’m building a list of art/indie cinemas and alternative film venues/events across Europe. Two terrifically helpful sources for identifying the best of the brick-and-mortar cinemas have been the website Cinema Treasures, co-founded by my graduate school classmate/friend and UCSB film professor Ross Melnick, as well as The Guardian’s reader-reviewed series “Cine-files”. I welcome any and all recommendations from readers!
A trip this meandering is a complicated puzzle to sort out, and at this stage can feel overwhelming. Though because I’m using miles to fly to and from the U.S., I need to settle on my embarkation and debarkation points in the next month. Since the first fixed date I have is the Transylvania Film Festival during the first week of June, I have my sights on flying to Istanbul (where I’ve been yearning to go, and which is conveniently just across the Black Sea from Romania). As for a place to end up after my last fixed date, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival mid-July in Prague, I am tempted by Paris: it is inarguably the cinephile city, with more independent cinemas per capita than any other, so if it turns out I have a surplus of time on my hands I’ll have plenty to choose from. Another option is saving Berlin for last, given that it’s affordable (in case I’m running low on funds) and closer-by. Having only ever visited during the depths of winter (see my Personal Statement in Issue 1), I’m excited to return and check out any biergarten ciné-clubs or other seasonal spots. Though I was recently disappointed to hear from a colleague familiar with Berlin film-going that movies there are routinely dubbed for theatrical exhibition. Unfortunately this is still the practice in much of the world (Italy in particular is an infamous offender), and I’m hoping to avoid places where dubbing is standard practice.
Once in Europe, I plan to take advantage of the Eurail Select Pass, which will allow me unlimited travel by rail in four continuous countries over two months, though I anticipate having to accept some less romantic modes of transportation such as RyanAir. For accommodation, I’m hoping to use Airbnb wherever available — probably not in Lapland. None of the festivals I’m planning to attend have finalized their 2015 dates, though the Film Festival Life website promises to provide timely updates. Luckily these transportation and accommodation options can be scheduled much closer to the time of my trip, and some even while en route. So while my itinerary is very much subject to change, at this stage it follows this tentative route:
Departing last week of May for Istanbul.
1st week of June: travel to Romania for the Transylvania Film Festival, tentatively scheduled for May 30 to June 8, held in the country’s second-largest city, Cluj-Napoca (which I hope will allow for some touring of the surrounding countryside and castles).
2nd – 3rd weeks of June: venture overland to Budapest and Vienna, with a possible side-trip to Dublin (via plane) should my paper be accepted for the Console-ing Passions Conference.
4th week of June – 1st week of July: fly to Bologna for first half of Il Cinema Ritrovato, then on to Munich for second half of Munich International Film Festival; both are tentatively scheduled June 27 – July 5.
2nd week of July: travel overland to the Czech Republic for the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, tentatively scheduled July 4 – 12, visiting Prague en route.
3rd week of July: travel overland to Berlin.
4th week of July: fly to Paris, then home.
This tentative itinerary leaves out a number of events I was excited about, namely the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Lapland and the Screen Conference in Glasgow. But there will be future occasions for far-flung destinations and stimulating conferences; in fact, I just learned about the NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies) Conference, held in mid-June in a different European city annually, so perhaps it will be geographically feasible for me to attend. And I may well cave and catch a quick flight to the Arctic Circle, especially if I were to acquire a press pass. In any case, this latest incarnation is a far more direct, condensed route of travel. Just having worked it out makes me feel less overwhelmed…
And for the time being, I have a more immediate new adventure with devilish details all its own: in a matter of days, I’m moving to Philadelphia to start a teaching position at University of the Arts. While I don’t know the city well, it appears to have a world-class art scene so I anticipate its film scene will have a good deal to offer as well. I’m already holding a ticket for a September 13 event at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute featuring one of my favorite directors, David Lynch, in conversation with long-time Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey. I’m also excited for ongoing film happenings in my “part-time” city of Boston, in particular the Harvard Film Archive screening of Greek filmmaker Athina Tsangari’s latest, Chevalier, with Tsangari in attendance. So look forward to more film musings to come!
Coming attractions: Foraging for films in Philly…
Issue 1 | July 2014 (Cambridge, MA)
Introducing my project | Film festival finessing
This blog is intended to chronicle my experiences and insights — both the practical and the profound — during my preparation for and execution of a journey I will undertake in summer 2015, thanks to the generous support of a Stevens Traveling Fellowship, to document 21st century independent cinemas and movie-going. Attached here is the essay I wrote as part of my application, describing why I wished to embark on this trip and how it serves to fulfill the mission set out by the fellowship to support “purposeful travel into unfamiliar territory that will inspire reflection and growth and lead to more fulfilling and productive personal and professional lives.” For reasons to do with the vicissitudes of my particular personal and professional life, about which the fellowship committee was most understanding, I have deferred the trip (originally to have taken place this summer) for one year. Due to the realities of budgeting both my finances and my time, I have scaled my initially proposed plans back considerably and will now confine my travels to the European continent. Yet I very much hope this will be but the first leg in an ongoing journey of itinerant cinephilia throughout the world…
And now for the preparation…Because I know how hectic the intervening school year will be, I very much want to have the bulk of my planning done by this summer’s end. Having decided to restrict myself to Europe and to structure my route according to designated festivals and urban centers — where I’ll get the most bang for my buck, film-viewing and cinema-visiting wise — at present I’m scouting the festivals and cinemas that line up with my temporal and geographical stipulations. Tentatively I’m planning to be en route by mid-May, to return by August 1 or thereabouts. While the fellowship is directed at travel abroad, I hope to do some reconnaissance come January at the Art House Convergence Conference that takes place alongside Sundance in Utah.
So many festivals, all at the same time…
It’s barely exaggerating to say that every backwater with a chamber of commerce has a film festival these days. Determining which are the festivals for cinephiles and which are merely inert extensions of the local tourist industry is a must. Consulting Indiewire’s directory of fifty leading film festivals was helpful in separating the wheat from the chaff.
The two I’m most excited about both take place in June: Il Cinema Ritrovato at the Cineteca di Bologna in Italy, about which I’ve heard beguiling stories of films projected al fresco in piazze where viewers watch while sipping proseco and eating gelato; and the Midnight Sun Film Festival, held “in Finnish Lapland, some 120 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, where the sun doesn’t set at all in the summertime” and, true to heliophobic film buffs’ nature, films are screened around the clock. (Though I hear there is also a steady rotation of soirees on the banks of the area’s many lakes.)
Two other strong contenders because of their perennially solid line-ups and settings in two places I’ve yet to visit are the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Munich Filmfest, though frustratingly both also take place in June. As does Bergman Week on Fårö, the Swedish island long home to Ingmar Bergman which now hosts a week each June devoted to film-related happenings. AND as does the Taormina Film Festival, which, taking place in a resort town on the northeast coast of Sicily, runs some of the same risks as Cannes (see below), yet beckons with an allure both bittersweet (it’s where both actor James Gandolfini and film scholar Peter Brunette passed away unexpectedly last year) and consanguinian (I’m half-Sicilian, have visited once but didn’t make it to the east coast). With it looking like I’ll need to make some tough choices regarding June, it’s a relief that the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Prague, where I’ve also never been, takes place in July, as does the Paris Film Festival.
The big question: to Cannes or not to Cannes? Pros: It’s conceivable that I could actually get there (it’s one of the only big-name festivals to take place during the summer months, or almost — mid to late May), and, well, it’s Cannes. Cons: It’s Cannes: hyper-commercialized, monstrously expensive, and insanely crowded. Many of the films screened there arrive with distribution deals already intact, and there’s a hierarchical system for admission passes so that you’re guaranteed to spend a lot of time standing on line or even not getting into screenings for which you have tickets. Because it’s bound to be less crazy and takes place a bit later in May, the Transilvania International Film Festival in Bucharest, Romania might be a good consolation prize.
Finally, while academic conferences are not specifically tailored to my project, it’s always inspiring to be around film and media scholars (not to mention it’s an economical way of covering a leg of the trip with conference funding from my home institution). I plan to apply to present papers at two in the U.K.: Console-ing Passions International Conference on Television, Video, Audio, New Media, and Feminism, June 18-20 in Dublin, and the Screen Conference in late June in Glasgow.
To attempt to whittle down these possibilities, I plan to approach the organizers of the festivals in question to inquire about any (ahem) opportunities that might entice me to go to one over another. I’ll need to wait until after the craziness of this year’s festivals has concluded, which delays my finalizing the skeleton of my itinerary and purchasing (or, I should say, trading in a lot of frequent flyer miles in exchange for) my ticket to and from Europe. But I’m grateful to have a bit of time in which to solicit opinions from those who may have attended any of these festivals, in which case please contact me via email or Twitter. Until next month, vive le cinéma!
Coming attractions: the state of independent cinema(s), foraging for cinemas across Europe, mapping my route…