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…