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 (cinemariasf at gmail dot com).
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!