Saturday, September 26, 2009

FILM FESTIVAL YEARBOOK 1—A Response to Section Two

With the 47th edition of the New York Film Festival currently in progress, I thought now would be a good time to follow-up on my response to Section One of Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit, edited by Dina Iordanova with Ragan Rhyne, published by the Center for Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews and Wallflower Press; namely because Section Two of the Yearbook provides six festival case studies, including Rahul Hamid's informative and fascinating historical essay "From Urban Bohemia to Euro Glamour: The Establishment and Early Years of the New York Film Festival" (2009:67-81).

As stated in Iordanova and Rhyne's introduction, Hamid's contribution to the Yearbook plumbs the depths of NYFF's archives to narrate the establishment of the festival through a description of the institutionalization and organizational politics of NYFF's first edition. I was particularly captivated by this strategy because—in essence—by laying out the conflicts, issues and compromises that characterized the first years of the NYFF, it addresses "the curatorial challenges still faced by the festival today and can offer insight into the epicurean world of contemporary film festival culture." (2009:67)

"Epicurean" is a lovely and apt term to emphasize the role of curatorial taste in shaping any festival's given program and how conflicts in taste texture festival experience. What has become perhaps the most important value of my appreciation of Hamid's case study of the NYFF is how it has provided an ameliorative perspective on some of my ongoing complaints about the San Francisco International Film Festival, which I now understand are neither specific to SFIFF nor "original" in any sense of the word. Said complaints have longstanding historical precedent and reflect the ongoing challenges compromised by curatorial choice. That choice can (and perhaps should) always be questioned by audiences and press; though that's not to say the challenges become resolved even if the choices are commuted. More and more I've come to understand the staged irresolution of these conflicts through the film festival platform. No one is to blame. It is the nature of the beast; film festivals the cage within which the beast paces.

Hamid situates his discussion by deferring to the seminal work of Thomas Elsaesser, who "describes the post-war film festival circuit as a direct response to the growing power and hegemony of Hollywood and the US film industry. This antagonistic relationship to Hollywood colored much of the international discourse around festivals, situating festivals and the European art cinema they programmed as anti-commercial 'high art' and American cinema and theatrical distribution as the province of the masses and lowbrow commercialization (though famously, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut challenged this distinction)." (2009:67-68) As the awkward fate of commercial distribution of films presides over the future of so-called festival "art film" and alternative exhibition practices, this current concern appears to have been built into the film festival phenomenon from its onset.

Amos Vogel—along with his wife Marcia—created Cinema 16, which had a direct influence upon how the NYFF was initially programmed. His 1975 book Film as Subversive Art was (as Hamid describes it): "Part manifesto, part celebration, and part detailed cinematic catalogue, there is no better introduction to Vogel's curatorial philosophy, which prioritized the examination of form over content, allowing industrial film, experimental work and auteur cinema to be appreciated on an equal plane." (2009:70). Vogel and his compatriot Richard Roud—then director of the London Film Festival—were instrumental in the establishment of the NYFF.

The NYFF helped to elevate the stature of cinema on parity with more established art forms, such as theater and literature, largely due to the advocacy of
Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice and Eugene Archer at The New York Times; both of who did not see film as subordinate to the established art forms, in contrast to older critics (like Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic) who did (2009:75).

Kauffmann emerges as a problematic figure in discussing the formative years of the NYFF, especially for his 1965 essay "Are We Doomed to Festivals?" in the October 2 issue of The New Republic. As detailed by Hamid: "In 1965, Kauffmann viciously attacked the [NYFF], homophobically complaining that Roud's descriptions of the films were written with a 'limp mind and wrist'. He called Special Events a 'circus sideshow', maintaining that festivals were for selling films and not for the display of art. Good films will be released, so ran the logic, and the rest were not worthy of the exalted status given to them by the festival in the first place. Kauffmann argues that the festival films should be shown in small venues year-round like Vogel's Cinema 16 (Kauffmann 1965:30-32)." (2009:77) I'm not familiar enough with Kauffmann's work to know if he has since retracted his initial impressions, though Bart Cardullo—in his important
Bright Lights Film Journal interview with Kauffmann—bravely circumambulates around Kauffmann's opinions shaped by nearly 50 years of film criticism.

Kauffmann was, by no means, singular in his criticism. Several older critics and the business establishment itself complained throughout 1964 and 1965. This criticism was compounded by that of younger critics who took objection to the establishment of the "hold review" policy (which has since become de rigeur for festival press coverage). "According to Sarris, the rule that films could not be reviewed during the festival (because this was too far in advance of their theatrical releases and therefore not useful for film promotion) grew to become a major cause of anger among critics, who were not primarily interested in the films' profitability." (2009:77).

Again, to be made aware that this longstanding conflict with the hold review policy has been in place since the onset of the NYFF serves to mollify my disgruntlement with the hold review policy at SFIFF. I now more fully understand the compromise struck between commercial and art cinema within the parameters of the film festival proper as a tension that is hardwired into the festival experience. That concession being made, however, I am still critical of the questionable policy of the tiering of press at film festivals, where celebrity "red carpet" journalists are granted more privilege and access than journalists who—like myself—elect to focus on first-time directors from the Global South or auteurial cinema. If reliance on studio fare provides essential financial backing and a spectacular dimension to film festivals—which I can appreciate—it should not, however, occlude the role of film journalists in advancing the work of non-studio fare. I plead for more parity in this instance.

Finally, "The NYFF also pushed the culture of film festivals one step further by being, in a sense, a festival of festival movies. The films selected were for the most part self-consciously artistic, created for an educated, international audience. On the other hand, the NYFF was non-competitive and stayed away from the hyperbolic atmosphere that surrounds festivals like Cannes and Venice. It was created as a haven for art appreciation. A staid and reverent atmosphere remains at the festival even today, as it approaches its fiftieth year. Further insulated from a promotion-crazed commercial atmosphere by the proliferation of festivals on this continent (Toronto in particular), the NYFF seldom hosts any North American premieres any more. Contemporary critics might also view the event as elitist and think of the festival as a completely bourgeois and irrelevant institution, but ironically that was part of the original point of the festival—to give film a place in the cultural establishment of the city." (2009:79-80)

In summation, Hamid's historicization of the NYFF serves as a template to understand the organizational precedents of international film festivals in general, drawing into focus the perhaps necessary contention between art and commercial cinema and the role of film festivals and their audiences in negotiating that tension.

The remaining case studies in Section Two of the Yearbook include Charles-Clemens Rüling's organizational analysis of the Annecy International Animation Festival as a "field-configuring event"; Kay Armatage's hands-on recollection of the 1973 Toronto Women & Film International, which examines—as the editors state in their introduction—"the ephemeral history of women's film festivals through her own memory" (2009:3-4); David Slocum's look at two African film festivals: FESPACO and the Zanzibar International Film Festival; and, finally—of related interest to the NYFF's current Masterworks series
"(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949–1966", expertly graphed out by Kevin Lee at The Auteurs Notebook—Ruby Cheung's narration of how the Hong Kong International Film Festival transitioned from a government-run program to a model influenced by corporate efficiency and sponsors, and Ma Ran's examination of how "that policy and aesthetics collided as underground Chinese cinema found its way onto the international film festival circuit, much to the chagrin of Mainland Chinese bureaucrats" (2009:4).

All of these essays are fascinating, informative reading that broaden an appreciation of the film festival experience in its contemporary unfolding. I would also recommend Richard Porton's erudite Moving Image essay
"The Festival Whirl", wherein he references the Yearbook in his consideration of "the utopian possibilities—and dystopian realities—of the modern film festival."

Cross-published on
Twitch.

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