My thanks to Girish Shambu and David Hudson for pointing me to Chris Fujiwara's N+1 essay "To Have Done With the Contemporary Cinema", which I found to be a fascinating if flawed brownstudy on—as David phrases it at MUBI—"the slippery notion of 'contemporary cinema' "; an essay which appears to have emboldened Girish to dismiss the "contemporary" cinema programmed at this year's Toronto International Film Festival or—if I'm understanding Professor Shambu's argument—any international film festival as fodder for "capitalist imperatives." I find Girish's entry as fascinating and as flawed as Fujiwara's essay and for many of the same reasons. Their fascination lies in the discussions they inspire—never a bad thing—but their flaws require objection.
First of all: I object to the elitist tone of both pieces. Girish's entry seeks to delimit the role of international film festivals to satisfy the preferences of a particular constituency (as if a festival can only be "good" if it meets those preferences) instead of understanding that a "good" festival caters to as many constituencies as possible, and never the same choices across the board. What works for TIFF might not work for the NYFF or the San Francisco International and to aim to reduce all festivals to a formula stifles creative difference. Whereas the overall tone of Fujiwara's essay is dismissive from the get-go, perhaps for turning people into nouns for what they do, rather than to describe their activities through adjectives. In other words, no one is "just" a journalist nor a critic nor an academic nor a ticket-buying civilian. At times we are each of us journalistic, critical, academic and consumerist in varying degrees and in endless combination. I see no point in pitting critics against journalists. That's a false hierarchy and I don't see what good it serves. I will never understand this academic need to classify everything into categories and to equate such activity into some kind of elevated understanding of the subject at hand; for me that's akin to—as poet Leonard Cohen states it—"pinning a butterfly to wood." If Fujiwara harbors concerns that he has lost touch of the contemporary for being an accomplished film critic, then perhaps he should go slumming and allow himself to be an accredited journalist for a season or two? Truth is, he can be both. He can retain his individual critical sense of what is contemporary and access journalistic privilege to what is consensually perceived as contemporary. They don't necessarily cancel each other out and, truthfully, can transmute each other into the gist of all film commentary: personal taste. For academics, critics, journalists and festival attendees alike: doesn't it always come down to personal taste?
I object primarily to Fujiwara's suggestion that the window of a film's contemporaneity closes swiftly after its presence on the festival circuit and that it is "truly contemporary only for a small group of people—critics, programmers, and distributors." I disagree with his limited definition of what is contemporaneous, not in how he understands the relationship of films to current events (Jafar Panahi's imprisonment; Apichatpong Weerasethakul's detainment by the Thai government; Peter Brunette's fatal heart attack in Taormina—all his examples) but in his strategic dismissal of the etymological root of "contemporary", which is to say "within the same time." Here I would lean on a comment made to me by TCM host Robert Osborne who admitted his disgruntlement with the dismissive term "old movies." A movie isn't old, he said, if you're seeing it for the first time.
No matter how old a movie is by production date or within the annual cycles of the festival circuit, if you are experiencing a film for the first time it is a contemporaneous spectatorial event. It is happening in the here and now. In fact, I would argue that this is precisely the contemporaneity that academics and DVD cinephilists have over the contemporaneity of journalists tethered to mere theatrical rollouts. Their discipline attaches "old films" to current events and/or immediate experience in provocative and relevant ways. By example, even Fujiwara references Metropolis to argue that journalists are embedded deep inside capitalist imperatives and can there be any question of how DVD film writing has encouraged the new cinephilic poseurs? Fujiwara, in fact, advances this argument best: "A film must be untimely to be worth talking about." Or rather, I would say it is the timelessness of films that accounts for criticism's efficacy, not whether they are contemporary or not contemporary. Film maudit, genre revivals (noir, silent), DVD commentary all underscore that the contemporaneity of film is the shared moment between the film and spectator, nothing more, nothing less and is betrayed by anyone wanting to define the contemporary through the straw man of capitalist imperatives.
Cross-published on Twitch.