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Essays

A Festive Threesome

  Film festival


I. The Splendid Fatality of the Instant

 

In 2006 I was in Paris and saw the big, messy Jean-Luc Godard exhibition at the Pompidou, Voyage(s) en utopie. A thousand people walked through that mess every day, for months; it was mad, provocative, invigorating – as if a Great Director had just regressed to the age of two years old, and was tearing up bits of paper, scribbling in Texta on the walls, unplugging all the TV monitors, defecating on the floor.

 

Just as the good as the show, in its way, was the special lift-out supplement in Libération newspaper, where JLG (given free rein to speak for pages and pages) compared a dance scene of Gene Kelly and friends in the old 1949 Hollywood musical On the Town (that clip was on an endless loop in the gallery) with his memory (fuzzy, but sweet) of a crazy, seemingly spontaneous communal dance in Boris Barnet’s 1930s Russian classic By the Bluest of Seas (the greatest film title in all cinema history, by the way). The dancing Americans (JLG pontificated) were grim, slick, neurotic, like a well-oiled capitalist machine … while the Russians in the kolkhoz were free, surreal, spinning and leaping in every direction (with camera moves and editing to match). What did this comparison prove? The Libé reporter, Philippe Lancon, rightly remarked: “What has disappeared for Godard [in contemporary cinema and film culture] is quite simply the element of surprise – the splendid fatality of the instant.”

 

Whenever people start saying (as they often do today) that DVD will replace film projection – and, even worse, that little DVD parties in our domestic loungerooms will replace all public screenings, including Film Festivals – I, too, start to feel precious and pained about that element of surprise. Because what is wrong with this loungeroom theory of the future of global film culture? I will tell you: it has too much comfort in it. Too much pre-programming. Too much of what we already know – whether that is the good old friends who enter our loungeroom every week, or those shiny favourite DVD hits we love to play again and again, for sentimental reasons (and I am as sentimental as the next cinephile, of course).

 

It’s been said before: cinema is all about – should be all about – discovery. There are moments in my life where I have deliberately, rigorously trained myself to pick up a movie at the video shop that, under no rational circumstances, I would ever choose to see: you would be surprised what you can discover by doing that. Or to stick with watching something flashing up on TV that I know nothing about. Actually, being a paid, weekly film reviewer (as I once was, for over a decade) is good for this, at least: you have to surmount your distaste for all kinds of so-called garbage (as everybody else tells you it is, whatever it is) and see everything on offer – whether you want to or not. And, in my case, I came to want it a lot … But, of course, the problem for all people in that film-reviewing profession is that, alas, they do not get to see everything (they only think they do), not nearly a fraction of everything, not nearly even a fraction of representative samples of everything …

 

This is where Film Festivals enter our lives – and also why they will stay in our lives, I predict. And why they need to stay in our lives. The good Festivals, to me, are like strolling through Godard’s playpen at the Pompidou. You never can predict what, or who, you are going to bump into, or fall over, or see or read. You follow strange whims, enter through strange doors, accept advice from strangers who – in your normal daily life – you would not pay any sensible heed to. You develop sudden passions for national cinematographies that are utterly foreign to you. You find new genres, sub-genres, mini-genres, multi-genres. Movies combine in your head, talk to each to each other, crossbreed: it’s that vast, imaginary film-fleuve, the great river of film, that you have always dreamed about – but which you never, ever found in your loungeroom, sipping tea or smoking joints with those ‘old familiar faces’ who share life-history with you, and hence also share your tastes, your lifestyle, your sophisticated culture …

 

But all cultural taste (particularly the most sophisticated) is a prison. Everything that is habit-forming in the life of a cinephile is bad news. Festivals are a good way to break those habits, to throw you off-track, catch you off-guard. Navigating a Festival – especially one that is large, wondrous and unruly – is a paradoxical exercise for the soul, like being Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, or learning to play two different rhythms at once like an African drummer. Perpetual insight and loss of control both at the same time. The choreography of Kelly and the abandon of Barnet, at once. The splendid fatality of the instant … that you survive, and live to tell the tale.

 

 

II. Circus Comes to Town

 

The first Film Festival I travelled far abroad to see was Rotterdam in 1997. I was a late starter at this game: 37 years old, and already a film critic for 20 years. For me, that edition of Rotterdam was a complete eye-opener, and a fulfilment of most of my cinephilic dreams: sitting in a front row inches from one of my heroes, Werner Schroeter, as he unfussily stood up to introduce his avant-garde opera film Love’s Debris (1996), was merely the cream on the cake of everything I was able to guzzle off the various screens (cinematic, televisual, museum and gallery) available that year.

 

I was there from before the first screening to after the last screening (something that – I would realise later – few professional critics actually do). But on that final day, reading the daily newspaper published by the Festival, I received a rude shock: a People’s Choice listing, based on the polling of the event’s audiences, ordered from 1 to 100. The luckless title right down the bottom was a film I adored, and had critically defended (for, back in my country, it was briefly in danger of being altogether censored): David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). And the film on top was one of the kind that, in my mind, I had precisely fled in order to come to Rotterdam: the disgustingly middlebrow, sentimental, ‘true life’, made-in-Australia hit Shine (1996). This was a true moment of dissociation that alerted me to the difference – alas, even in the Rotterdam of my dreams! – between the cinephile audience (which longed to stamp its taste on the entire event) and the ‘normal’ audience for this, and possibly almost every, Film Festival. And the normal audience in this case was, no doubt, comprised mainly of Dutch locals.

 

Those who are lucky or rich enough to be professional Film Festival-goers – whether as journalists, critics, programmers or film distributors – occasionally need to recall a time in their lives before they had the chance to travel internationally. For me, this recollection is easy: I have a vivid sense of what it once was to be a relatively home-bound local (since I remained one for an unnaturally long time), waiting for the Melbourne Film Festival to roll out its offerings each year. It was like a Utopia arriving from the Great Elsewhere, like the three-ring circus come to a small town …

 

This is a poignant (as well as exciting) situation which, I suspect, is at the origin of the cinephile passion for many people in many countries: the Film Festival is what – well beyond newspapers or magazines, radio or television, telephone or computer – gives the non-traveller his or her glimpse at a wide, rich world, so full of different sensibilities, visions and stories. The longing for World Cinema stirred in this heady situation is, for a sedentary viewer, simultaneously a longing for the World itself.

 

It is easy to overlook the reality that for many members – sometimes a majority – of a Festival audience, the experience is local (and special) in just this sense. When seasoned critics and other well-travelled Festival observers express (as they almost invariably do) their weariness or bitter disappointment at seeing some almost-12-month-old movie pop up at yet another event on their global itinerary, they overlook the fact that, for a sizeable number in the crowd, this may well be their one and only chance to see that film on a big screen, and in the company of like-minded others.

 

Festivals that contain this thrill of local experience are still with us; but what has, for the most part, vanished in many places are Festivals that are only local, and tailored specifically to the characteristics of such a (usually grateful) reception of world cinema. A note of nostalgia inevitably creeps into discussion of these matters. Nostalgia aside, what we are witnessing today is not merely the existence of two separate, very different audiences or constituencies (local and itinerant) attending Film Festivals, but the increasing gap between two kinds of Festivals – or two kinds of Festivals within the one Festival. There are Festivals that play to a home audience, and Festivals that play to an international audience, a crowd of visitors with specialist interests (whether cultural or commercial or both) in global film culture – and now, Festivals that try to play to both audiences at once, via the differential ‘streaming’ of its program content.

 

To put it another way: many Festivals now aspire – to the material and cultural extent that they can – to be like the major event of this kind on the film world’s calendar, namely Cannes. And however one might choose to describe Cannes, its nature is determined by the fact that it is absolutely not a local Festival: its program is not in any sense intended for or directed at inhabitants of the French Riviera. It is the very model of a cosmopolitan, international arts event that may be hosted by a particular city or community, but whose entire audience is transported in from beyond it.

 

This quality of statelessness that is characteristic (to varying degrees) of many modern Festivals is both a commercial situation (Festival as marketplace, both for distributors buying films and filmmakers hoping to raise finance on projects), and a social experience (Festival as jet-setting lifestyle) which can be deeply attractive (and even addictive) to those who taste it. But this plan or dream – as history has shown – often conflicts with other agendas driving Festivals, especially those we might label national or nationalist: a Festival as showcase of national production for the local audience and industry, as well as for any important or influential visitors from abroad.

 

Of course, Festivals around the world have tended inexorably to fragment in other ways and directions as well, further detonating the once-upon-a-time ‘local community’ experience. In the place of the small, focused event of old, the contemporary Festival is now a segmented program spread across a number of venues aimed more often than not at niche audiences. We are all familiar with what this means in practice: there is a stream of Asian genre films for their devoted fans; comfortable comedy-dramas of middle-class life set in exotic locales for the more mainstream crowd; documentaries (usually either about politics or music) for those who prefer a bigger-than-TV non-fiction experience; and token sidebars of experimental cinema, animation, short films, dance films, whatever …

 

The cinephile can welcome and enjoy this sort of fragmentation – for the individual, it increases the delirious range of choices at the largest smorgasbord Festivals, after all – but also, inevitably, enters into battle with it. What happened to the Festival as a film culture event, as an opportunity for mass pedagogy? The niche-oriented festival merely confirms spectators – or rather, gangs of spectators – in the already-established prison-house of their frequently rigid, exclusive tastes; as a general rule, audience members who follow the marketing cues designed precisely to target them do not wander over and cross the lines of starkly diverse types of cinema. Where can the fervent dream of cinema as transformative experience that I have described above – which is, from a certain angle, the very heart of the cinephile passion, and cinephile culture – go in this kind of segregated landscape? Still today, cinephiles tend to swoon at the thought of vast picture palaces (even of the contemporary multiplex variety) filling up with mass bodies curious to taste an Abbas Kiarostami, Béla Tarr, Chantal Akerman or James Benning.

 

Has the audience – any audience – slipped through the cracks of all these momentous, paradoxical, contradictory changes in the nature of Festivals? There is, indeed, one further, still more insidious cultural turn to record. What we have witnessed, in the larger circuit of international film culture, is a new sort of disconnection or dissociation: between the arthouse chains and the Festivals. For a long time, the two existed in symbiosis, and even moved in lockstep: arthouse distributors would preview their latest acquisitions at a high-profile Festival screening (such as Opening or Closing Night), and then go on to shop around for new aquisitions among the program offerings. This relationship often indeed became rather too close for comfort, with certain Festivals coming to increasingly resemble vast, compliant showcases for upcoming arthouse product. Today, however, there is a growing, yawning autonomy between these two realms of arthouse and Festival – summed up in the recent creation of a truly hideous term: the Festival film, which is apparently the name for a film whose destiny, nowadays, is only to play (on the big screen, at least) on the international Festival circuit.

 

What this means, in practice, is that, in many countries, the films prized by progressive cinephiles – the films of Philippe Garrel, Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and many others – are branded, virtually from the outset of their public life, as unfit for general (or even moderately specialised) distribution and exhibition. Another delicious anecdote marks, for me, the beginning of this historic transformation: the tale of certain arthouse buyers who had skipped (as ‘not their kind of thing’) the screening of the Dardennes’ Rosetta at Cannes in 1999, and were then shocked when the main jury (headed by Cronenberg) gave it two major prizes. This kind of wilful blindness to vast portions of world cinema – and many modes of filmmaking – is increasingly evident everywhere.

 

In this rather ominous context, the Festival audience – cinephile or otherwise – may yet again find itself transformed into a community that is ‘all in this together’, huddled around those ephemeral, magical ‘Festival Films’ that manage to squeeze themselves through our narrowing cultural portals.

 

 

III. Coverage

 

A moment of true cognitive dissonance: at the same time as a prestigious event such as the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference showcases numerous panels that attest to the growing scholarly interest in the international phenomenon of Film Festivals, one can also see and read, on-line and in print, the typical types of festival reports that appear in the journalistic mass media and specialist film press. And the discrepancy between these two spheres of interest and attentiveness is enormous.

 

We have all probably had the disconcerting experience of reading the report of a Festival that one personally attended, and then incredulously wondering: ‘Did this author go to the same event that I did?’ For every Festival usually carries, somewhere in its programme, a treasure-chest of unknown, fascinating, odd and compelling discoveries – some of the best of which might, these days, be in the form of art/film installations spread diligently throughout the host city venue.

 

Film Festival reportage, even in the best and most intelligent magazines, tends not to reflect the kind of curious, wandering-through experiences that I and many viewers have. Coverage of Festivals is almost always brief, cursory, predictable, grudging. A handful of Competition films are evaluated, mention is made of key Retrospectives, a general thumbs-up-or-down comment is volunteered – plus, there may be a colourful touristic comment on the city where the festival takes place. 500 to 750 words, and it’s all wrapped up.

 

For the editors and publishers of cinema magazines, Film Festival coverage is an irritating obligation. It is tied to ‘news value’ – and if an event doesn’t have a dozen amazing premiere presentations, forget it. This is why magazines slavishly follow the brutal hierarchy of the Festival circuit: Cannes gets all the space, Berlin and Venice a little less, Rotterdam and Locarno and Busan less still … And then, way down the list, Melbourne, Jeonju or Thessaloniki will be lucky to get a few summary paragraphs – which will often, these days, be shoved into the veritable ghetto of the ‘on-line exclusive’ leftover bin.

 

It was not always like this. In key moments of the history of film-critical publishing, we find magazines such as Filmnews (Australia) and Framework (UK) in the 1980s, or Cinema Scope (Canada) consistently since the late ‘90s, taking on this cultural mission and delving deeply into festivals big and small, conservative and progressive, speedily cosmopolitan and fiercely local. On-line-only film sites should have followed the model of these historic examples but, in the majority of cases, they have not. A month after any Festival is over, it registers as ‘old news’ worthy only of a Variety-style instant salute or put-down.

 

One of the problems of Film Festival coverage is that it tends to be written by jet-setting types with short attention spans, only a few days to take in the event, and a restless hunger for the ‘new thing’ in global terms. But festivals need to be covered from many angles, in a cubistic mosaic. Retrospectives and special events deserve special, extended, reflective essays (such as the kind that the French publications Trafic and the now-defunct Cinéma have offered) – not just press-release previews. Critics should be on the lookout for the strange, small, unlikely-to-travel new films, not just the limelight premieres. Coverage needs to recapture the long-lost sense of personal discovery – and drop the blasé, been-there-done-that world-weary tone.

 

The reviewing of festivals is a far from revered form of film criticism. Anthologies of the canonical texts of cinematic critique have rarely ever included such pieces. Those who choose the selected works of specific, acclaimed critics (such as André Bazin or Andrew Britton) for book publication tend to cull such occasional pieces early on in the editorial process – with some important exceptions, such as in collections by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Manny Farber or Serge Daney.

 

Festival reviews are regarded, in the long view of film culture history, as not only occasional but also ephemeral – on-the-spot reportage, little more. A collection of first impressions, peppered with observations about the atmosphere of a particular city and its event, and perhaps some random thoughts of a socio-cultural or political nature. Such reports are considered as wed to – and swiftly exhausted by – their currency; three months after a festival is over, no one (it seems) remotely wants to read about it, even if they were present there themselves. It’s long gone, just a sweet or sour memory. And as for the vast majority of readers who did not attend that festival: why should they care at all?

 

Why this stigma hanging over writing about festivals?

 

The currency of festival reviewing has a mercenary character – and those who write such reviews, as much as those who deem to publish them (often rather reluctantly), are all too aware of this. Festival reviews exist, in the vast majority of instances, because a deal has been struck: a critic receives free hotel accommodation, accreditation to the event, and perhaps a plane ticket to and from a far-off land, if he or she agrees to cover the event. For those who run festivals – particularly those who man their public relations departments – all publicity is good publicity, and this publicity tends to be, on the whole, scarce. A positive review often serves to win a particular critic another invitation the following year, and the merry-go-round of critique-as-promotion spins again …

 

Of course, I am not speaking here about the biggest, A-list festival events. Cannes knows it will automatically get all the publicity it will ever need, every year. (Look, for instance, at the remarkably extensive – and impeccably serious – amount of pages the French magazine Positif devotes to Cannes.) To a lesser extent, the same is true of New York, Berlin, London, Venice, and a few others. But when we reach the level of festivals such as Rotterdam, San Sebastian, Locarno, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, or Thessaloniki, the situation starts becoming somewhat more desperate.

 

No matter how objectively good or valuable these festivals, no matter how beloved they may be for their local or regional audiences, they know they will always ultimately have trouble getting more than a page – perhaps only half a page – in the likes of Sight and Sound or Film Comment. Film festivals around the world arrange themselves into a hierarchy, with published coverage of them tending to follow this hierarchy all the way down the line. And Asian film festivals, perhaps above all others on the globe, suffer from the injustices of marginalisation built into this hierarchisation.

 

Do the British or American readers of these major magazines (sold and distributed all around the English-speaking world) really want to know what is being seen and discussed at festivals in Ljubljana, Valdivia or Shanghai? Ideally, they should. But this pinpoints the central challenge in the face of the reality of what we might call commentary-as-commerce: how to make a report on events in such sites seem like news within the flow of the world cinematic calendar?

 

Journalistic coverage of festivals is, by and large, obsessed with the status of film premieres. That is why Cannes will always win the greatest column space, even in newspapers (such as The Australian) that scarcely bother to mention other large-scale festival events, except when they generate political controversy. At Cannes, every film is a premiere; as an Argentinean festival director once said to me, flatly: ‘If you want to know what’s happening in cinema today, you go to Cannes’ – and there is an undeniable truth to this. Elsewhere, however, things are different – and we must strive to take what I call the view from elsewhere, decentred from the vantage point of the major festival sites.

 

Almost all festival reports alternate between capsule discussions of select films – usually, in fact, a tiny fraction of what was available to see at the event, although reviewers often try to give the opposite, false notion – and snapshots of the festival experience. It is (as always in considerations of criticism as a written or literary form) a matter of rhetoric, of the organisation of snippets and fragments: some reports begin and end with a spot of local colour, others return to questions of national political context obsessively (as was the case in Serge Daney’s ambitious festival reports).

 

There is a tension in this rhetoric between a musing on the stateless film text – plus its corollary, the cosmopolitan, jet-setting critic who might very well see that same text here, there or anywhere in his or her global festival travels – and the necessarily specific coming-to-terms with the conditions of that particular time, place and culture in which the critic finds himself or herself. Then again, is two weeks spent hunkered down in the dark rooms of a film festival really the best way to get to know a country, or even a city? Add to this a usually buried fact: that busy journalists frequently end up not in public theatres with local moviegoers, but in unlovely press rooms, booths or cubicles, hunched over television monitors, sampling bits of this and that film on DVD copies of variable quality.

 

Festival reviews rarely give a sense of the true complexity of these events. They give a truncated, synoptic view, quickly shedding all sidebars such as seminars and publications. Special outreach activities, some of them enormously popular with the local audience – such as outdoor screenings and sessions for children and/or adolescents – tend to go unmentioned. Important activities such as industry forums, or training programs for young critics and curators, are even less visible. Which globe-trotting critic would want to waste his or her time seeing a movie they have already processed elsewhere around the globe, or attending a seminar on a topic of little interest to them, just for the sake of imbibing a bit of local flavour? However, this all suggests that there might be many, alternative ways to carve up and write about a film festival such as Busan, and critics have scarcely begun to explore the range of these possibilities.

 

 

Note: this text, originally commissioned for the Busan Film Festival conference of 2011 (which I was unable to attend, hence the piece went unpublished), draws upon several texts I have written for books on film festivals, and my monthly column in Filmkrant.

© Adrian Martin August 2011


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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