Without question, a focus on the auteurial has determined my choices of who to talk to and, thus, directors have been my strongest suit in recent years, partly because I often find the creative process behind a film to be as interesting as the film itself. In a recent interview regarding his quarter of a century fascination with choreographer Pina Bausch, Wim Wenders stated: "One of the few fields of adventure left on this planet is the creative process." I like that statement very much because it comports with my pleasure: conversation as adventure. If my world is indeed shaped by conversations, lately I have come to feel mine is an adventurous existence because it is so intimately linked to the creative processes of others. Nothing is more satisfying.
2011 marked a pronounced shift in my film coverage in that I decided to stop relying exclusively on publicists to secure access to talent. I feel blessed that—at this stage in the game—I'm often able to contact talent directly and, thereby, time my work to immediate interests rather than the tethered dates of theatrical rollout. Based upon my working record, it's become easier to solicit conversations with individuals who interest me. But before I start sounding too much like I'm biting the hand that feeds me, there are specific publicists I very much enjoy working with. Karen Larsen and her staff at San Francisco's Larsen Associates spring immediately to mind as exemplar publicists who not only do their work but allow me to do mine. Christine Slaton at Terry Hines & Associates / Allied Advertising is always a complete pleasure to work with and was the first publicist to invite me to interview a director in front of an audience, for which I remain sincerely grateful. Festival publicist Lina Rodriguez has helped me mine the somewhat unwieldy Toronto International Film Festival for its Latin American treasures and underscored the art of collaboration possible between publicist and journalist.
Another notable shift in this year's coverage is a growing interest in the craft of critical writing itself. I'll always be interested in directors, but lately I'm more interested in film writers and academic authors. I'm learning so much from comparing notes with colleagues and pursuing academic themes that arch over the filmmaking process. I'm looking forward to what 2012 will offer in that regard.
All that being said, here are my 10 favorite conversations of the year, arranged alphabetically.
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Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare. While doing research on Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927), I chanced upon the work of Montreal-based writer Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare and we danced around each other on Facebook for a couple of years before finding the opportunity to finally sit down to talk. That opportunity arose when I was invited to attend Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival and I'm grateful to Mario for suggesting we seize that chance. Mario's theological and political interests have enrichened my understanding of genre in general and the horror genre specifically.
Thomas Elsaesser. Perhaps the most influential conversation I've had this year, Elsaesser snapped me out of my obsession with all things upcoming and new to consider the value of historical context and the film canon. Brilliant to the marrow, I listened raptly to Elsaesser's thoughts on film festival studies and national cinemas. My thanks to Danny Kasman at MUBI for publishing the bulk of our brunch conversation, supplemented by a spillover piece on The Evening Class.
Diamanda Galás. One of the most compelling artists I've ever met has been Philip-Dimitri Galás and having the opportunity to remember him with his sister Diamanda was a sheer joy. Diamanda ain't no slouch either, evidenced by the rather electrifying Schrei 27.
Todd Haynes. As celluloid capsizes into digital and the in-cinema experience capsizes into home viewing, observing master filmmaker Todd Haynes shift into a new phase of the moving image was thoroughly intriguing. His exploration of long form work in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce was revelatory of the directorial opportunities and spectatorial pleasures that await us in future years. Here I must shout out to HBO publicist Ashley Mariner for her expert facilitations.
Michel Hazavanicius. Some consider The Artist a confectionary pastiche. I consider it a perfect work of artistic entertainment and a sly reconfiguration of the silent film. I couldn't convince my colleagues at the San Francisco Film Critics Circle to pay the film any honor; but, I've got my fingers crossed for the Academy Awards®. This was my second conversation with Michel, who remains charming, handsome, funny and intelligent.
Dee James. My mamacita proved as fascinating as any film director or film scholar on the subject of how movies influence and shape our lives. I learned more about her and our family through her recollections on movies from her childhood into the '70s. Our conversation was the crowning touch to a year-long project on "Mothers & Movies", which joined a portfolio of entries published at MUBI, SF360, and The Evening Class.
Dave Kehr. Unfortunately, my conversation with seasoned film critic Dave Kehr is not available on-line and—by that very fact—signifies a further shift in my film writing. As one of the first accredited online journalists in the Bay Area, it didn't take very long to become obsolete. Within a mere seven years, thousands of online journalists now compete to say the very same thing at the same time. No doubt this partially motivated my strategy to seek out conversations that might differ and veer away from the din and clamour of online film coverage (and suddenly publishing in print took on a challenging novelty). On the occasion of the University of Chicago Press publication of When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade, I sought out a conversation with Dave, motivated by his comment: "At the moment, American film criticism seems divided (with some exceptions) between two poles: quick-hit, consumerist sloganeering on Internet review sites and television shows, and full-bore academia, with its dense, uninviting thickets of theoretical jargon." (2011: 2) Chris Fujiwara and I had already discussed the need for film criticism that addresses a region somewhere midway between these two poles and so I appreciated the chance to explore the theme with Dave. Our conversation hits the newsstands in Issue 53 of Film International (Vol. 9, No. 5). A shoutout to Liza Palmer, my editor at Film International, for taking a recent interest in my work, particularly my conversations with film critics.
Jonathan Marlow. Yet another shift in my 2011 film writing is from theatrical to streaming. This has been partly predicated not only by the advance of current to future trends, but my geographic move away from the San Francisco Bay Area to a new "retirement" home in Boise, Idaho where—believe it or not—there are no press screenings. This is, of course, a curse and a blessing at the same time. Though I am predominantly a film festival enthusiast, and continue to experience film festival fare here and there, I've had to find new ways of watching the moving image and so—with the acquisition of a kick-ass 55" SmartTV—I've signed up to Netflix Instant Watch, VUDU, and Hulu Plus. This has actually been a rather satisfying development. Not only does this free me from the pressures of theatrical rollout (and publicists with their pitchforks) but entices me to watch, let's say, the Criterion library on Hulu Plus (many entries in high definition). This viewing experience is better than screeners or DVDs and, often, better than digital projections in movie houses. The future has arrived. And no one has had more influence on that arrival than Jonathan Marlow, who started out at VUDU (he's responsible for their daily dollar special), developed Greencine, and is currently turning Fandor into a must-stop for the discerning cinephile. Not only is Jonathan informed on these trends, but he's genuinely funny and always a pleasure to lunch with each time I'm back in San Francisco. It should be acknowledged here that it was also Jonathan's interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul that motivated me to begin interviewing directors oh so many moons ago and I look forward to working with him in future years by contributing entries to Keyframe: Fandor's repository of critical essays.
Jonathan Rosenbaum. What a complete pleasure it was to speak with Jonathan Rosenbaum, who Girish Shambu has aptly characterized as "arguably the most highly respected English-language film critic in global film culture." My conversation with Jonathan was published in Issue 51 of Film International (Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 84-93). Again, that is not available online, but I posted an excerpt of that transcript on The Evening Class, while exploring all that was disposable and discontinuous.
Patrick Wang. Last, but certainly not least, is my conversation with actor-writer-director Patrick Wang whose remarkable directorial debut In the Family toggled that switch inside of me that says one of the key responsibilities of a film journalist is to champion the small film he believes in. And I believe in In the Family, which remains one of the most mature and nuanced narratives I've seen in some time. After having had his film rejected by over 30 film festivals, Wang strategically self-distributed In the Family with a run at New York's Quad Cinema, which resulted in an extended run, an Independent Spirit nomination, and film festival programmers now stumbling over their feet to slot the film in upcoming editions. I won't say which Bay Area film festival has tagged the film until they've officially announced it; but, will say it was pleasurable to watch a few festivals wrestle for the privilege. Ultimately, I guess that's what co-presentations are all about.