Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Film International Special Issue on Film Festivals (Vol. 6, Issue 4)

Regular readers of The Evening Class are, no doubt, aware at this point that I am an affirmed film festival junkie. I credit this addiction to the influence of Michael Hawley who introduced me to the San Francisco International some 12 years ago. I had been attending Frameline and some genre festivals; but, with the San Francisco International, I was hooked! When I began The Evening Class a few years back it was an online literary reaction to my increasing involvement with film festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area, with infrequent sojourns to festivals out of state. I had become intrigued with what I have often termed "the sociality of film culture"; a term that keeps adapting even as my own experience of film festival culture keeps adapting. Certainly, watching films within a film festival venue is a distinct experience from watching films in their theatrical distribution. For starters, the audiences are different. I would even go so far as to say that the latter filmviewing experience (and its attendant audience) has become increasingly less attractive to me as time goes on and there are many reasons for that, which I hope to explore in due course. Where there has been much focus on the formal qualities of film production and the evolving nature of film criticism, in my opinion not enough attention has been paid to reception studies and the sociocultural dimensions of global cinema as reflected through film festival culture, in contrast—let's say—to the sociocultural dimension of online discourse about film studies, which lately has begun to remind me of a high school popularity contest.

With transnational aplomb, the current issue of
Film International (Vol. 6, Issue 4) is a specially-themed issue on "Genre Films & Festival Communities" that seeks to redress that oversight. This issue has been indispensable in helping me articulate my continuing position within this cine-phenomenon. It's been one of the most impressive and serviceable film journals I've read in quite some time and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in film festival culture. Its most immediate reward has been exposure to the work of Dina Iordanova, guest editor for this particular issue. Dina Iordanova is Professor in Film Studies and Director of the Centre for Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Her research approaches cinema on a meta-national level and focuses on the dynamics of transnationalism in cinema; she has special interest in issues related to cinema at the periphery. She has published extensively on international and transnational film art and industry, including Budding Channels of Peripheral Cinema: The Long Tail of Global Film Circulation and (most recently) New Bulgarian Cinema (both published by College Gate Press and beautifully produced by PoD provider Blurb). Dina Iordanova's blog DinaView likewise features erudite commentary on international films, directors, actors, and events.

In her editorial introduction to Film International 6:4, Iordanova has stressed how the proliferation of film festivals around the world necessitates a concentrated focus on the international dynamics of the festival phenomenon. She succinctly summarizes the key concerns of each of the essays contributed to the issue and frames the questions that run through the collection: "What is the impact of the worldwide festival network on the other elements of the global film industry? How does the festivals' hierarchical … system impact on the complex dynamics of global cultural production and distribution? What is the place of festivals in the structure of international film distribution (and, increasingly, production)? What historical and technological conditions led to the current powerful positioning of festivals as fundamentally influential cinematic institutions? What is the role of festivals in the system of national, regional and worldwide cinematic culture? Can the international festival operation be economically rationalized? Are festivals indeed crucial yet underestimated links in the context of the global film industry?" Proposed answers to this initial set of questions essentially serve as springboards into further inquiries. By reviewing the history of the evolution of film festival culture, and by scrutinizing specific festivals while likewise addressing more general issues concerning the functioning of festivals at large, further questions arise about the role of festivals in the context of arts management and cultural policy and "a range of other issues, such as the specific temporal and spatial aspects of the festival circuit, the paradoxes and contradictions of the economic logic of festivals (straddled between the culture/commerce divide), the importance of film markets attached to festivals, the role of centralized festival regulation, the impact of new digital technologies, the complex festival synchronization across national and international frameworks and the professionalism of the film festival operation." (Film International 6:4, pp. 4-5.) In the weeks to come, I intend to pepper entries here at The Evening Class with insights gleaned from the diverse approaches represented in the current Film International issue.

For starters, I glance at the epidemic hazard of an oversaturation of film festivals in the Bay Area alone. In October, as helpfully detailed by Brian Darr at
Hell on Frisco Bay, there have been 12 film festivals, many dovetailing if not downright overlapping each other. Though one would like to perceive this as an embarrassment of riches, more truthfully it feels—as Brian described it—"crammed" and "at least eleven too many for one cinephile to attend" or to "write about with much care and detail." Brian did his best and my approach was to leapfrog festivals to do justice to those I landed on. I received frequent, nearly frantic, emails from such festivals as the United Nations Association Film Festival and the International Documentary Film Festival requesting coverage. Though I have never had to before, this year I chose to guiltily ignore some of these requests, and consciously not attend some of the festivals, in order to provide decent coverage to the rest. As Sergei Mesonero Burgos writes in his essay "A Festival Epidemic in Spain": "Of what use are film festivals? If the abundance of something were related to its necessity … we would venture to say that they have become increasingly indispensable. But, for what? And for whom?"

I chose to focus on the second edition of Dead Channels, the inaugural line-up of French Cinema Now and the Arab Film Festival. Despite some very good programming on the part of Bruce Fletcher, Dead Channels was not as well-attended as it should have been for the amount of excellent press it received from nearly every media outlet in the Bay Area. As Burgos has further written: "Is there enough audience to sustain all this abundance of events? Assuming that the answer is positive, this still does not mean that the audience will always be there." (Film International 6:4, p. 13.) Contributing to the dilemma is that some of the entries in Dead Channels—Let the Right One In and Surveillance, to name two—were likewise on the lineup at the Mill Valley Film Festival. To minimize this maddening overlap, as a film writer I specifically avoided mentioning Mill Valley, much like I avoided mentioning the midnight series at the San Francisco International Documentary Film Festival, which—like Dead Channels—revived Tokyo Gore Police, a film that—to worry the bone—had already played at earlier film festivals in San Francisco. Overlapping dates, overlapping line-ups, repeated programming, have contributed to what Salvadore Llopart has termed "a true feeling of anarchy and chaos" and which Burgos warns "has helped undermine the traditional consideration that film festivals once received by the critics, the public, and the industry." (Supra, p. 12.)

The capacity crowds at French Cinema Now, however (except for the noticeably unpopular and underattended Lads and Jockeys) made me question exactly what had happened at Dead Channels? Fundamentally, I believe it's a genre problem (and possibly a venue problem). With the increasing digital access to genre films (you can buy certain foreign-region titles through Twitch before they've even reached American soil), genre-specific film festivals are being cut off at the knees, especially when they're competing with films that have no digital distribution or ready exposure. As someone who loves genre films and someone who finds little delight in the social deficit of being banished to home entertainment, this is a troubling development. There was a time when you would go to a genre festival to see films you'd never see at your local multiplex. And Bruce Fletcher deserves high marks for not charging filmmakers submission fees and for programming entries such as Karla Jean Davis' Golgotha and Jimmy Creamer's Reality Bleed-through, which—honestly—might never see a theatrical screening anywhere else without Fletcher's visionary generosity. In the realm of genre film festivals especially—along with festivals oriented towards representation of minorities long assimilated into the larger culture (I'm thinking of the problems being faced by Frameline)—new strategies must be devised if these festivals are to survive.


Anonymous said...

The Denver International Film Festival just posted their line up, and, as usual, I feel mixed about it. There are a few films I want to take advantage of seeing, but for the most part it seems that it is designed to give some people bragging rights about seeing films early that are getting theatrical distribution later this year or early next year. I'm also irked about the lack of Asian films with the cancellation of the Asian Film Festival that use to happen in June. Check out the line up and let me know if there's anything that you strongly recommend.

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you for stopping by to comment, Peter. Your insights are always welcome. You bring up a thorny point: the co-opting of festival programming by the Hollywood studios. This was a complaint I heard expressed several times at the recent Toronto International (once known as the "festival of festivals" and now considered by many to be the starting gun of the Oscar race) and one which has been frequently levied at our own San Francisco International, where one time too many films have been programmed no less than a week before their theatrical distribution; an unfortunate practice I hope to see diminished in future editions. As a seasoned festival junkie, one of the first things I do when graphing out the films I hope to see at any given festival is to monitor whether or not they have already been picked up for distribution. This doesn't always seal the deal since—as I mentioned—more often than not I don't bother to catch films in theatrical distribution. If I don't catch them at festival, they won't blip on my radar until they are either offered by On Demand or released on DVD. But I do resent being tempted by Hollywood product at an international film festival against independent or foreign entries or—even worse—having slots that could have been given to independent and foreign films claimed by Hollywood movies. Especially at a so-called "international" film festival. With regard to the San Francisco International, the height of this arrogance was achieved by previous Executive Director Roxanne Captor who—when questioned at the public announcement of the program line-up regarding the presence of an inordinate amount of American films—glibly responded that an American film is always a foreign film elsewhere. Tickled by her own rationalizations, she then used that response as the slogan for the following year's festival, which felt like spit in the eye of the Film Society membership. Clearly, it's something I've not yet forgotten nor forgiven her for.

In her introductory Film International editorial, Iordanova references Thomas Elsaesser 2005 essay "Film Festival Networks: The New Topographies of Cinema in Europe" (in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 82-108), wherein Elsaesser historicizes "the festival network as a specifically European industry response to Hollywood's distribution mechanisms." Elaesser further claimed that "the festival circuit had become the key force and power grid in the film business, with wide-reaching consequences for the respective functioning of the other elements of film culture such as authorship, production, exhibition, cultural prestige and recognition."

As film festivals have gained in credence, it only stands to follow that the larger fish want to swallow up the smaller shiny fish. Film festival enthusiasts like myself shall have to increasingly rely on the fortitude of programmers and film festival professionals to adhere to their founding mission statements to provide world cinema and not Hollywood's red carpet fodder. It's a conundrum, of course, because appetites are whetted by the presence of big-name stars. I challenge programmers to reconfigure definitions of luminosity by educating audiences as to what truly constitutes a "star" at an international film festival. Is it really Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, or Mark Ruffalo waving to the cameras for such obvious dreck as The Brothers Bloom?

Which leads me to your request for recommendations from the just-announced line-up for the Denver International Film Festival. I'm sorry to hear about the dearth of Asian fare at your festival and am curious as to why Denver's Asian Film Festival went belly-up? Do the demographics not support it? Here in San Francisco, with its strong Asian and Southeast Asian populations, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the 3rdI Southeast Asian Film Festival are both popular events committed to their constituencies. At least you have Chocolate.

In the Denver line-up are the "international" films that are making their festival rounds, hopefully building up steam for their theatrical releases. A Christmas Tale, Waltz With Bashir, The Wrestler, The Class, Gomorrah, Of Time and the City are admitted high-profile entries that are eminently worthy, though as you've mentioned I think each of them has achieved distribution and will be making the rounds theatrically any month now. Idiots and Angels and Sita Sings the Blues will be coming to our International Animation Festival (I can heartily recommend the latter) and Black Sea will be coming to our New Italian Cinema in the next couple of weeks. I strongly encourage you to watch Slingshot Hiphop, which was just featured in our Arab Film Festival, and was the highlight of this year's programming as far as I'm concerned. I'm envious that you have the opportunity to see The Tingler in conjunction with Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, which was ignored both by Dead Channels and the San Francisco International Documentary Film Festival, allegedly because "no one would come see it."

The tribute screenings of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hustler and The Talented Mr. Ripley are sweet remembrances of Paul Newman and Anthony Minghella, whom we've lost this year, though more obscure titles would possibly have been more interesting and—again because it's an "international" film festival—perhaps a film or two of Youssef Chahine's would have been in order? But I guess it only matters if members of the English-speaking world die, eh?

The presence of The Desert Within and Intimidad in Denver's line-up conjures up San Francisco's International Latino Film Festival, which this year is offering the most anemic schedule imaginable. Sure, they're offering Intimidad; but, where is The Desert Within (it's like they're trying to throw us off the scent by offering My Life Inside and The Fire Within instead)? Where is Lake Tahoe? Where is Blue Eyelids? I'll be the first to admit that my relationship with ILFF is a contentious one and that certainly hasn't been ameliorated by this year's selection of films, still greedily spread out over most of the month of November in seven locations instead of focusing on a more tight, compact, quality festival.

HarryTuttle said...

Very nice post. Thanks for the heads up about Iordanova's book and blog.

Michael Guillen said...

Mr. Tuttle!! How grand to hear from you. How's life in the City of Lights, which hardly even requires film festivals as the city itself seems to be one long ongoing film festival yearround.

HarryTuttle said...

I'm fine, and always at the same spot. "Harry Tuttle" (as your blogroll indicates) resides at Screenville, you know. ;)
How's things in Frisco?

Michael Guillen said...

One might say ambitiously Parisian.

HarryTuttle said...

What do you mean "ambitiously parisian"?
And am I the only pseudonymous blogger you know? ;)

Michael Guillen said...

No you're not, Sam; but, let's entertain the notion you are. By "ambitiously Parisian" I mean ambitiously cinephilic. It's a compliment to Paris, which we all know is the center of cinephilia, at least in its first edition.

HarryTuttle said...

Sam Lowery is the hero. HarryTuttle is the other guy, played by Bob DeNiro. ;)
But what's with the "quotation marks" à la McCain? It doesn't sound nice...

Of course Paris is the center of the World! Where is the second edition? Nobody told me...

Anonymous said...

After the latest very successful Toronto After Dark festival, I'd have to disagree about genre festivals. I find that the genre audiences really appreciate the social aspect of getting together with other like-minded fans to scream and laugh together. Not sure why Dead Channels wasn't more successful, but certainly having films that were playing elsewhere couldn't have helped. By contrast, Let the Right One In was an After Dark exclusive here in Toronto and the theatre was sold out, with many people turned away.

Michael Guillen said...

I was, of course, intending to speak on the San Franciscan scene. By way of Twitch, and even reports from Austin, I'm aware that genre films are doing quite nicely elsewhere, especially in Toronto. And I praise Toronto audiences for that. Toronto also has an excellent metro system with a huge university campus directly linked to that system, adding accessbility to successful reception. If one had the resources, it would be great to measure such factors in individual urban grids.

Another factor of major concern for me here in San Francisco are rumors that the San Francisco Film Society is aiming to transfer its International Film Festival out to facilities in the Presidio, which might be jolly good for them; but disastrous for me, unless they provide some kind of public transit shuttle.

Michael Guillen said...

Harry, by the "second edition" of cinephilia, I'm referring to the thesis of Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener, the editors of Cinephilia: movies, love and memory. I don't completely agree with their thesis but find it thought-provoking. They suggest that cinephilia is demarcated by two distinct phases. The first "Parisian archetype" of classic cinephilia is irrevocably tied to the 1960s French Nouvelle Vague, which they characterize as nearly-petrified as an elitist, snobby mode of film reception, historically appropriated by such dogmatic agendas as the politique des auteurs. They are concerned that this phase of cinephilia still exerts an almost siren-like influence to the current day. They suggest the second edition of cinephilia is much more transnational with aspects that exceed auteurist concerns, such as reception studies, blockbuster/pop culture, and contemporary exhibition/distribution patterns which engage evolving consumption patterns. Great food for thought but sometimes their stance becomes a little too "more cinephilic than thou" for my particular tastes.

HarryTuttle said...

Oh I see. I didn't know. That's interesting.
That's typically the American school of thought. The philosophy of social studies, pragmatic, analytic (was that Emerson? Cavell?) and Pauline Kael! ;)
It's more important a field in general cultural studies, than it is in cinema in particular, IMHO.

I'm not trying to be chauvinist there, but if it is society-centred rather than film-centred, it's not really ciné-philia.

Michael Guillen said...

"Harry", Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener are Dutch and many of the entries to their volume come from European scholars. I'm not sure how far your "American" definition flies. And though I'm really not interested in opening up a debate on cultural studies vs. film studies in this comments section, I do wonder what the worth of films would be once removed from society. Charges of elitism, indeed!

HarryTuttle said...

OK "Maya" I guess we're not "understanding" each other there. ;)

Dude, the "Parisian" cinephilia is not exclusive to France either! It has been appropriated by Americans like Andrew Sarris.
If we agreed on the definition of "cinephilia" we wouldn't have to precise "French-based cinephilia" and "American-based cinephilia" to distinguish a different approach.
The point is not to determine who's the better approach, but to figure we are effectively using the same word for two fundamentally different practices. And these fundamental differences come from the fact that two trends of philosophy have evolved independently on either side of the Atlantic ocean.
But there are "American-school" friendly scholars in Europe and vice-versa.

It's perfectly OK if you're pro-social-studies. Movies don't belong to either side. It's film discourse that decides to emphasizes different aspects in a common corpus of films.

I believe it's clearer for everyone, the writer and the readers, when film discourse admits to its origins.
I never suggested that all Americans thought alike.


Michael Guillen said...

"Harry", again, I am not arguing for a false dichotomy between French and American cinephilias. I was pointing to the work of de Valck and Hagener who postulate two phases of cinephilia (which I stated I did not fully agree with), though again they too are not setting up a false dichotomy between American and French cinephilias. That's a path you're going down all by yourself, whistling merrily. You're correct in that the so-called "Parisian" cinephilia is precisely transnational for having been furthered--I wouldn't say "appropriated"--by Sarris and his colleagues. What I understand de Valck and Hagener to be proposing is a definitional shift in transnational concerns. But in order for us to truly argue their (not mine) theory in any meaningful fashion, I would suggest you familiarize yourself with their work first. Otherwise we would simply be tossing straw men at each other, which doesn't much interest me.

HarryTuttle said...

Well, i stated up front I didn't know the book you referred to.

And I feel very sorry that what escalated this unfortunate misunderstanding was my tongue-in-cheek joke about "Paris being the center of the world"... I would have hoped you knew me better than thinking I was that chauvinist.

OK I'll get right back atcha when I get a chance to read this book. Which is unlikely.