Monday, January 04, 2010

FRAMEWORK 50 (FALL 2009)—A Response to Three Cinephilias

One of the most influential conversations I had in 2009 was with Cinematheque Ontario programmer James Quandt who helped me articulate a rumbling discontent deep in my filmwriting practice, specifically with regard to what has been pegged as "the new cinephilia"; a subject Quandt had recently written about in an essay entitled "Everyone I know Is Stayin' Home: The New Cinephilia" for the Fall 2009 issue of Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media. In gist, he relayed the growing preoccupation among programmers and curators with the "in cinema experience" and the compensatory "value added" to public screenings (intended to replicate the commentaries and essays accompanying DVD releases, which a current generation of cinephiles have come to expect).

Having staged that generational distinction, I asked him where he stood with regard to the "new cinephilia" and he admitted he was conflicted and that his Framework essay was purposely poised as a polemic. He said: "I think we're all lying to ourselves that—when we analyze a film on DVD—that we act as if we've seen it and we haven't. I'm convinced of that. I give all kinds of examples in this article. Critics and film professors fool themselves when they say they can make believe watching a DVD is the same as watching a film and that the differences can be translated sufficiently. I don't think they can. It goes from subtle, embarrassing things such as the color coding of a certain film where—when I came to see the film again on screen—what I thought was white on DVD, was actually pale rose. I've had this discussion with people at work where one person said, 'That's inconsequential'; but, I'm sorry, it isn't to me. You wouldn't have an art historian do a visual analysis of a Renaissance painting from a reproduction. They would be laughed out of their profession. There are so many things they could get wrong because of the differences in reproduction. It's the same thing with cinema, as far as I'm concerned."

That comment hit a nerve with me because of the increasing tendency to offer screeners to press covering film festivals rather than arranging screenings. Though I can understand the practicality and cost-effectiveness of such a policy, I have become increasingly concerned that what I'm seeing on screener and writing about is not what audiences actually see projected. I've mollified myself by rationalizing that watching a film on screener allows me the luxury of finessing the narrative; however, at the same time, I worry that my writing has become conflated with festival promotion. Again, practically, these days that's sometimes the only way a festival publicist and a journalist can coordinate an advance preview piece on an upcoming festival. But I can feel the difference between my first year of writing on film when press screenings were still in practice and these last few years when policy has shifted to screener libraries.

Of course, no one forces a journalist to watch screeners and some even prefer doing so in the privacy of their own homes; but—as Quandt expressed (and I agree)—the "in cinema experience" is far superior and, somehow, more genuine. By way of example, when the San Francisco Film Society asked me to cover their Sundance Kabuki Screen series—which I had some interest in doing—they then advised that this would have to be done by way of screeners. Again, I understood the practicalities of that policy; but, for the first time, my enthusiasm was completely doused. It was no longer about having access to the films; it was about being denied the full experience of the films. Something felt ingenuine to me about promoting a film I had not actually seen and experienced fully in the cinema with an audience (or as Quandt puts it: "I am inclined to think we are lying or telling half-truths when we describe a film we have seen only in this way."). For that matter, I also have issues with the so-called "audience" at press screenings. Consequently, I became more attracted to cinematheques like the Pacific Film Archive and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts where I could write about a film I had watched with a "true" audience in house. Quandt's comment confirmed my decision to shift away from promotional pieces of writing to experiential pieces of writing.

Granted, that isn't always possible due to time constraints or one of a hundred other rationalizations. I still watch some films on screener; but—if I write about them—I've decided it's important to disclose the medium. That's the only way I can reconcile the tension. I also believe written experiences of films can be layered. I appreciate how Acquarello distinguishes between festival drafts—her first experience of a film—and her more burnished responses based on a second viewing. Each journalist has to find the practice that feels authentic for them.

While waiting for my ordered copy of the Frameworks issue on the new cinephilia, Girish Shambu generously forwarded me three of the essays from the volume, one being Quandt's. Much of what we discussed in our conversation is reflected in the essay and it felt good to see his polemic committed to script. There were a few additional ideas in Quandt's essay that I wanted to address.

First, is an early definition of cinephilia "in terms of personal history." That speaks to me, not only in the generational distinctions that characterize cinephilia, but in the vision that informs writing about film. Myself, I journalized about film long before I became a film journalist. I clearly recall when that practice began. I was in my late teens in Twin Falls, Idaho, reading the diaries of Anaïs Nin, which seemed to me a window into an avidly desired life of experience. She had gone to see Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jigokuman (Gate of Hell, 1953)—which was all the rage in Paris at the time—and she rushed home to her diary to describe her experience of the film; not a critique, her experience. That's when I realized that seeing a film had the potential of being life experience—not just entertainment; not just diversion; not just information—but, life experience. As a writer, going to the movies was never the same again. Writing became intimately tied to my experience of film. It has been an alternating current ever since—watching film, writing about film, reading what others have written about film. That alternating current charges my cinephilia.

Pursuing his concern that film cannot be legitimately analyzed from an easily-accessed DVD or video—"nevertheless legible (that is, consumable)"—on a computer screen, Quandt asserts eloquently: "Is the 'new cinephilia', this Netflix, YouTube grande bouffe of images in which Costa, Straub, and Baillie can be seen in Nunavut or Cappadocia and immediately discussed online with philes from afar, a miracle of 'open museum' cultural democracy or a spurious celebration of the omnivorous and inauthentic?"

I enjoyed his further elucidation of the "in cinema experience": "The phrase 'in cinema experience' has recently entered the discourse of film curation—to differentiate traditional filmgoing from gallery and installation presentation of 'moving image' works, videotheques, etc.—a marker of the rapid move of cinema's realm from the social and ceremonial to the insular and domestic, the analogue to the digital, the hard-won to the easily accessible." Quandt observes that some archivists argue that the very phrase "in cinema experience" provides "the last hope … of restoring an 'aura' around film, and thereby fostering a traditional kind of cinephilia."

That phrase "aura around film" is particularly intriguing. Quandt situates it as a "venerable Benjaminian notion", along with "authenticity", which—once approached—leads to "the realm of the ineffable" where "weight, solidity, grain, clarity, the there-ness of images are all difficult qualities to describe."

Finally, Quandt writes: "Suggesting that technology and aesthetics increasingly exist in inverse proportion, the advance of one diminishing the urgency of the other, Tsai [Ming-liang] recently said: 'I am not happy about the whole DVD medium, in fact. The quality of film experience is crashing. People are now satisfied just watching a film to find out what the story is. The experience is almost being reduced to a kind of information gathering. What is going on? Who is it? My films are really for the big screen only.' "

* * *

In Adrian Martin's essay "Cinephilia As War Machine", he defines cinephiles as "a band of outsiders, a band apart—or they are nothing." He stresses: "Cinephilia is a motivating, and mobilizing, passion. Cinephilia is always about thought, always about theory, always about criticism. If it's not about those things, it's just a load of nonsense about devising best-film lists and seeing six thousand movies."

With "Best of the Decade" lists swamping the Internet, I have to take
Girish's argument that the most valuable and productive purpose of end-of-the-year and end-of-the-decade list making is "to spark conversation and debate" with a necessary grain of salt, even as I trust his affirmation that "such a list isn't merely a casual inventory of movies, a trivial exercise: it's a public and visible move in the political/cultural wars around exactly what cinema is worth taking seriously and why. For anyone seriously interested in cinema, this is an important subject." I guess it depends on which list you choose, which in turn might necessitate a List of Lists? At The Auteurs Daily, David Hudson has been tackling that one quite competently. He's up to his eighth entry on the subject. Admittedly, I admire his competency more than the lists. Fortunately, I avoided a Best of the Decade list because I have only been officially writing about film for five years. I've refused several requests to participate in others' lists, but must be honest and say that I miss my list of the 10 best drawings by Girish Shambu because—in this last year—he's had other things on his mind than doodling. Sigh. Now I'm feeling inclined to draft a list of the 10 things I regret most about lists. Enough.

Returning to Martin's essay, I was particularly intrigued by his notion that cinephilia should contain a certain soulfulness or—more accurately—is soulfulness. Though the seat of the soul has been in debate for millennia, I'm willing to accept that soulfulness "in the sense that it animates, in a lively way, a whole tradition or shared network of assumptions and feelings about cinema" can be a working equation for cinephilia. Echoing some of Girish's sentiments about the value of lists, Martin references Serge Daney who, he says, "knew that the war machine of cinephilia was sometimes about, precisely, taste: not good taste, not cultivation or sophistication, not a canon of films—but a war over what is to be seen, what must be seen, and even more, what we can get to say in public about what we have seen. And that war is never over."

Which leads me to wonder about the politics of taste, since wars always seem to revolve around politics. The Evening Class was encouraged by an argument in the Movies Conference on The WELL with a woman who complained about my queer readings of film. She didn't want to read what I had to say. Of course, she never had to read what I had to say; but, that wasn't the point. The point was she was trying to stifle my perspective. It was a point as sharp as a tack and convinced me of how important it was to—as Adrian puts it—say in public what I have seen; i.e., my subjective specularity, which is about as political as it gets. So I've gone public with The Evening Class and—over time—have become grateful to her inspirational irritation.

As time goes along, I find my taste compelled towards films from the Global South, independent filmmakers who are self-distributing, or—in essence—any film that isn't being pumped out and promoted through the studio system. Why write about a film that five thousand other bloggers are writing about? As Mark Peranson has opined in the current issue of
Cinema Scope: "A film that most people have heard of is by its very nature less interesting than a film that only a few programmers or critics have seen." I've decided that if I have to watch screeners, they'd best be of obscure films that I might otherwise never have the opportunity to see.

* * *

Finally, Girish Shambu's essay "What Is Being Fought For by Today's Cinephilia(s)" borders on the controversial for being so affirmative of the "new cinephilia". He admits that from its beginnings, his cinephilia "always existed in a context, a landscape, that included two key technologies: Internet and DVD/video, both of which play a central role in my cinephilic practice." Without question his site has been on the cutting edge of the new cinephilia for years. Blogathons started there and much much discourse over the years. His is an appropriate counter-argument to Quandt's.

The succinct and beautiful definition of cinephilia that Girish prefers comes from Antoine de Baecque and Thierry Frémaux: cinephilia is "life organized around films." Anaïs helped me intuit the life within films and—since my retirement—my life has certainly been organized around film, more than I ever imagined possible. Like myself, Girish's cinephilia is charged by the alternating current of watching film and the written record of film. He writes: "So, what is today's Internet cinephilia fighting for? I would propose: it is fighting to build bridges between zones previously kept apart—thus, for example, a given social network of cinephile blogs that values both commercial and avant-garde cinema; Hollywood and world cinema; older and newer films; and so on."

Girish continues: "What should today's Internet cinephilia be fighting for? I would propose: aiming not only to concurrently embrace and engage every kind of cinema, but finding a place for, valuing, and encouraging multiple modes of discourse. By this I mean three distinct groups—professional critics, academics, and 'amateur' cinephiles—that are part of the same blog network, forming a 'learning community,' each group bringing something unique and essential to the conversation."

Nowhere is that more apparent than on his own site.


Peter Nellhaus said...

Well, yes, seeing a movie on DVD rather than the big screen is different for a variety of reasons, but concurrently, the definition of a movie is also changing, from something that was created with rolls of celluloid to something created digitally.

Most people who see films, and even those who write about them, focus more on the plot than on the visual aspects, which is why they find screeners acceptable. There are films I would love to see theatrically but will never be able to, so DVDs is the next best thing. What I most hate about many screeners for critics is that they have writing, sometimes constantly, warning not to duplicate the DVD, marring the images.

As far as what I write about, I think it speaks for itself. I usually get around to seeing the films that a larger number write about, but I think that even if I'm not as good a writer as I maybe should be, at least I'm calling attention to some films that are worth considering.

Michael Guillen said...

I've always admired your working knowledge of Thailand, Peter, and thank you for stopping by to comment. I agree that the timestamps and watermarks on screener DVDs interrupt the full experience of a film; but, then again, as I'm saying, I think we watch screeners for the information, not the experience. It's a tool with specific applications.

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...

Cool post, Michael! Though of course, with more intellectual prowess than I would ever commit to a page! ;)

Just in addition, aka "what about me?!":

I have let my little acre of internet go to fallow, lately. I had to remind myself why I liked doing this to begin with, and it was not to review DVDs.

My original 'modus operandi' was to comment upon the entire viewing experience, particularly in a festival atmosphere, since that would be the primary, if not sole venue for almost all of those films to be screened by a potential audience. There are additional influences, starting no less from front-of-house management, to introductions, to the follow-up Q&A's, all of which shape the 'filmic experience' for me. Even the space itself affects my reception. (Roxie vs. Castro, anyone?)

This past year, sitting in my apartment with a stack of several hundred screeners just didn't cut it. (I won't even go into the transfer qualities or the ridiculousness of peering through the 'watermark', the frame count, and the subtitles to try and see the frame!) Even though it allowed me access to a greater amount of material, it inhibited my enthusiasm to actually process the experience.

There is also the matter of 'pro bono', or perhaps 'in-kind' work involved. Though it is not implicit, I have had the distinct impression that as long as I am willing to knock out a festival review a week or two before it opens, then I am welcome to attend. (I will only mention in passing the organizers who would rather have media-pundits-critics-what-have-you not even show up at the actual fest, but whose only purpose is to promote tickets during pre-sale.)

My 2010 Resolution is to actually attend more screenings and fests. Though that may prove to be financially inhibiting, as I my lose my 'pre-registering credentials' via screeners, at least I will feel more engaged and productive, even if I only see HALF of what I physically can.

Anyway... more coffee!!

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for weighing in, Jay. Our experiences are comparable. I commend you for sticking to your guns and have to say that running into you at a festival screening only serves to make it all the more special.

Long live "in cinema"!!

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...

And it's always fun to run into you at the fests to interrupt your civilized discussions with my vileness!! >:)

Oh! And Happy New Year, Michael!
Have a great time in Palm Springs!

Anonymous said...

Well, of course, I don’t know what “cinephilia” is, beyond what any amateur lexicographer would surmise, a love of film. Presumably there is a parallel “bibliophilia” that discusses a standard for enjoying books. Certainly, reducing the non-big-screen-movie-house viewing experience to “information gathering,” as Tsai Ming-liang appears to do, has descended to a rather comical elitism. Or at least this seems to represent a failure to recognize that “information gathering” constitutes the human experience.

As a counterpoint, I am put in mind of Bill Sampson’s raging against an ambitious, star-struck Eve Harrington’s attempt to constrain the definition of “the theater” in All About Eve. Another more appropriate reference might be the modern linguist’s aversion to prescribing grammatical rules, preferring to defer to usage as the only authority. Nevertheless, as even linguists observe, it is in fact a hallmark of our linguistic sophistication that as natural language speakers we care about standards for a language owned by everyone and no one.

Mike Black

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for stopping by to comment, Mike, though I'm surprised that you would be the one to draw the "elitism" card, which is--as Quandt has further specified--a specious one. He writes: "But aren't these concerns--original formats, authenticity, expertise, discernment--outmoded or, to use a word that has become specious by ideological overuse: elitist; a fusty alarum akin to disquiet over iPod's shuffle mode obviating the movement-by-movement continuity of classical music? Just as music recordings--vinyl, CD, downloads--made music widely accessible, don't DVDs and downloads do the same for those passionate about film but not fortunate enough to live in the cities where art house and cinematheques exist? (That number dwindles by the day.) Just as no one ever claimed that a CD replicated the experience of a live concert, it would be disingenuous to argue that a digital copy of a film, no matter how superbly produced, could ever replace seeing it in its original format and classic setting. So the analogy, hence the concern, is specious."

Anonymous said...

Michael, I was not making the argument that drawing distinctions between watching a film on a big screen in a movie theater and watching it on DVD at home is elitist. I was observing that the attempt to reduce the experience of watching a movie on a TV -- or indeed any human activity -- to “information gathering,” in Tsai Ming-liang’s quoted words, is elitist, in that it preemportily relegates certain kinds of human perception and experience to mere “information.” When of course human perception and experience is always a big fat can of worms as information goes.

It may be that an argument is to be made that Quandt’s position is elitist in spite of his declaration that it isn’t. But I wasn’t making that argument.

Michael Guillen said...

Well, if anyone deserves to be elitist it's Tsai Ming-liang. Are you familiar with his films?

I can't imagine that applying linguistics to cinephilia is going to have much traction. You either feel things or you don't. You have a passion or you don't. And saying that people can't differentiate their passion from information gathering is ... well ... specious.

Anonymous said...

I’m not familiar with Tsai Ming-liang’s films -- and of course the idea that some “elitism” may be justified was really the point of the linguistic reference. But no doubt I have been clumsy. The point I hoped to make was that the grammarian’s or stylist’s preference for a certain kind of English can be defended, in the face of the professional linguist’s knowledge that the free-for-all that is usage looms as the only objective authority, precisely because we are subjective individuals who care in a personal way about how something is said. Or how a movie is watched.

That was something like a point of agreement with Quandt, though I remain skeptical.

Mike Black

Michael Guillen said...

Okaaaay. As soon as I can figure out what you just said, I'll get back to you; but, until then, I'll rely on our now familiar back-up (delivered with raised eyebrow and an Eve Arden drawl): "You're wrong." Heh.

Anonymous said...

Being wrong is my long suit.

I would only demur that, while remaining sceptical with regard to some of the distinctions being made, I was more in agreement with what you were saying than not, Michael. And I thank you for posting the discussion.

Mike Black

Sachin said...

For me, there are some cinematic experiences that DVD could not replace, like the breath taking experience of watching Khadak on an IMAX screen or appreciating how the overexposed film in Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures gave me a sense of the heat of the Brazilian landscape. That being said, if it were not for DVDs then I would be unable to see most foreign films (especially any by Tsai Ming-liang whose films I love), which is a topic related more to distribution problems and the limited cinematic choices on offer in most major cities.

I just want to chip in about a different kind of cinematic experience I had last year. At the Venice film festival, I saw Claire Denis' White Material in an open air square screen. The film was in French with Italian subtitles so I couldn't follow the words but had to depend on the visual language. It turned out to be the best cinematic experience I had as the space around the screen was open, my eyes were not aware of the boundary that I know exists in a closed theater and as a result, for me the film was liberated. Plus, I could hear various outside noises in the background (such as glasses clinking, dogs barking) which made the screen appear to be part of the environment. Overall, the film appeared more alive. I might not have had the same feeling if instead it was a film where the camera was not allowed to wander the landscape. I am curious how I would find the film when I eventually see it in a closed theater or DVD for that matter.

Michael Guillen said...

Sachin, what an evocative comment. Thank you. I love your description of the open air screening of White Material, especially when you speak of the film being "liberated". Cinephiles in SF are very fortunate as various film organizations offer open air screenings to their constituencies.

I'm also very glad to hear mention of Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures, which is one of my all-time favorite films!

Max said...

Bravo, Michael. I've been thinking about the screener problem lately myself. They're unavoidable, of course, but that we need to be clear about what we're describing, rather than abstracting the film as an essence untied to context. Your distinction between the promotional and the experiential is very helpful in this light.

Pacze Moj said...

I'm going to be Canadian and mention Marshall McLuhan and his "hot" and "cold" media.

Cinema, as a "hot" medium: (1) requires little viewer participation; (2) privileges one sense; and (3) presents lots of information.

(Hello "information gathering"?)

TV, on the other hand, is a "cold" medium -- as would be watching movies on a computer screen.

"Cold" media: (1) require lots of viewer participation; (2) play with more than one sense; and (3) present little information.

(Hello "information gathering"?)

I don't pretend to understand McLuhan, but I think the point is that the better-quality something is, the less work the mind has to do to "create" or "add to" the image, or sound, or whatever.

Hence, when we watch a movie in super-dooper IMAX quality 3D with 56-speaker sound, we sit more passively than when we watch it on YouTube, squinting to make out the details. As a result, the IMAX experience -- and the theater experience in general -- is more "numbing" (another McLuhan term) than watching the same movie on TV.

Further, as cinema strives toward [technical] quality, it heats up; whereas, for instance, the lousier the VHS tape, the cooler the medium becomes.

What's the point?

(*whispers* "Who knows...?")

Maybe that the "cinema experience" is exactly this pleasure of being passive, numbed, lulled to sleep (the dark dreamy theater and all that film theory), which we lose when we're forced to more-actively engage with the sounds and images.

On the flip-side, the advantages (for cinephiles, if we define them as people who not only like to be numbed) of DVD and laptops and downloaded-movies is exactly that they demand this participation.

Can you do a shot-by-shot analysis of a Hitchcock finale in the theater? Sure is a lot easier to do it on computer...

And a shot-by-shot analysis does seem to me to be something a cinephile might be interested in. Most things I'm flexible about, but I'm always irked by the attitude that wanting to understand how something works or is put together is not a passion or is not fun and, therefore, can't be described as "cinephilia".

As a personal note: one of the my most-important aspects of [perhaps] being a cinephile, is reading about films -- whether in books, articles or online. Cinephilia doesn't make sense to me unless I spend time reading (casual researching, I guess). This may well be "information gathering" at its worst, but I don't enjoy watching a film unless I have some information, whatever format I see it in.

I'm also a little confused about the signifiance of James Quandt's white / pale-rose colouring in the context of film as an experience, a part of one's life. I'm sure I'm mixing up arguments, but: the point of the theater-experience is to present the film as Tsai wants it presented, so that everyone can have and share a unique experience of it?

And if I'm in the theater, does it matter where I sit, what my eyesight's like (maybe there's a "reasonable viewer" standard to follow!), whether I look down to jot a note or eat some popcorn?

Film screenings are expensive [for must of us] to attend. Besides the actual price of the ticket, which sometimes isn't too bad, there's travel, possibly acommodations, food, time. The notion that once you're inside the Cinematheque, magically you're experiencing cinema (!) and anywhere outside it you're not -- yes, does seem elitist. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but let's remember that cinema was born as a popular attraction. If we think about peep-holes, we could even make a case that even the idea of group spectatorship is somewhat artificial...

Anyway, just some rambling thoughts based on yet another of Maya's excellent posts!


Sachin said...

Thanks Michael. Wow, I had no idea that you had open air screenings in SF. I used to be in awe of the number of film festivals you have in SF but hearing about the open air screenings has left me in more awe :)

Pacze, I have often found that the location I sit in a theater does sometimes alter my perception of a film. Sometimes sitting too close forces me to narrowly focus on a certain part of the screen thereby missing details on the edges, whereas for some films if I am right at the back, I can let my eyes wander across the screen but might feel removed from the film. And sometimes if I am trying to read subtitles, if there is a row of heads in the way, it causes me to move constantly in an attempt to catch every line of dialogue thereby missing the visuals. I have found that I have had to adjust with each theater (even the multiplexes are not equal in my city) and it depends on how much gap there is in between the screen and the first row of seats plus how the seats are laid out. It's a trial and error process :)

Lesley said...

Hi! I have more of a question than a comment. I'm a graduate student in English Literature at the University of Minnesota, and I've tried SO hard to find an English translation of one of the works referenced in this post (Antoine De Baecque's "La Cinephilie ou L'Invention d'Une Culture"), but have continued to come up short. Any chance you know where I can locate one? Thank you!

Michael Guillen said...

Lesley, thank you for your comment. I checked with Girish Shambu regarding where he found the English translation and he said he noted it in an excerpt, which he jotted down in his journal; however, he doesn't know if an English translation of the complete text exists. Sorry we couldn't help you out.