Monday, August 30, 2010


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


ZC said...

For what it's worth, I read Fujiwara's article not as strictly delimiting "contemporaneity" but rather as puncturing the nebulous, sometimes arrogant, and bloated connotations of the term itself - that is to say, he was on the side of the open-ended, the polyvalent, the many-voiced, and against the obsession with newness being some special criterion. (Because, after all, just who gets to say what's "new", and who gave them this job?) My own feeling is that he wouldn't actually disagree with the Osborne quote you cite ...

Likewise, with Girish's piece, I didn't get the sense that he was trying to . Yes, things change, but is that to be the final word on all things that do change!? If the abandoned urban lot for instance is turned into a community garden, and then reclaimed by original private owners because the space is now lucrative, are we forced to say - if we don't want to be tagged as elitist (that breezily conversation-stopping word!) - 'The space just changed, it had to serve different needs?'

So, then, I don't completely understand why you're pitting Girish's voiced hesitations about capitalist imperatives as inherently "elitist"? Change is inevitable but specific changes can be disagreed with!

Michael Guillen said...

Lovely comment, Zach, thank you.

Have you ever had that moment where you've hit the "send" button and realize, "Hmmmm. Maybe I should have slept on that one more night?"

Despite reading Chris's article several times and being quite impressed with it actually, I failed to intuit--as has already been pointed out to me--his self-deprecating irony. He's such a consummate critic that it never dawned on me that he might be criticizing himself.

Fortunately, he's agreed to have a conversation and I anticipate being set right.

As for Girish, I'm shadowboxing out of sport and memory. Some while back I lodged the very same complaints against our San Francisco International Film Festival and then became involved with a set of film festival scholars out of Scotland who presented my complaints as woefully uninformed on the history of film festival structures and their interest in any given festival's organic evolution. I don't have the advantage of distance that Girish does to monitor the increasing corporatization at TIFF, nor do I find it unique to TIFF, and by comparison to the few other festivals I've been fortunate to attend, I consider TIFF heads above the others in its breadth of programming. I've no issue with questioning the changes that festivals go through, it's the "what they should be" that raises my eyebrow. I maintain that Girish is being unfair to the festival programmers and not accounting for the variety of films they're providing. As much as I appreciate the "hipness" of favoring the Wavelengths program for being true to pure cinema, I am much more appreciative of the Vanguard program for providing the welcome relief of entertaining genre.

Girish and I have agreed to duke it out in Toronto. Tickets will be selling fast, I'm sure. Get yours today.

Thanks for your intelligent defense of both Chris and Girish.

ZC said...

Maya, yes I've had the 'premature send' experience myself - relatedly, my apologies for not finishing the first sentence in my second paragraph! (Though context, I hope, makes what I would going to write very easy to fill in...)

Not being a festival-hopper myself (though not because I wouldn't wish to be), I have no personal opinions on specific festivals beyond the armchair observations & received wisdom I inherit from those closer than myself. I'm no privileged observer. So I don't aim to defend or criticize TIFF; but I can look at and empathize with certain criticisms. It seems to me that Girish's (and others') aired problems with TIFF is, as with say Cannes (but of a significantly lower magnitude!) the festival becomes too specially weighted toward the interests of companies with financial stakes in selling/acquiring hits - i.e., a marketplace, and one fueled by hype - even if this does not reflect the composition of the audience (including all the locals & traveling film lovers).

Wish I could be at Toronto to see you and Girish duke it out! I'd be in the front row with popcorn. Cheers.

Sachin said...

Hi Micheal,

Thanks for giving a perspective from festival programmers’ point. One of the hardest things for any festival is to find a perfect balance between art and commercial cinema. If a festival drifts too much in one direction, it gets criticized from one faction who are not happy with the festival's direction. On the other hand, even if a festival is appropriately balanced, then it still get criticized yet one film festival contains many categories and sections to suit various tastes as you point out. I find that people put down a festival quite easily just based on a specific section. For example, I have been very impressed with the Rotterdam film festival over the last few years and have been delighted to discover some great films that have played there. Yet, I still see the festival get criticized but most of the films that I have seen are rarely mentioned in the festival criticism and the films that are used as an example of poor taste are ones that I didn’t see. It is impossible for one person to give each category their full attention at a festival and come to a proper conclusion of the overall festival, yet a festival is mostly labeled based on the strength or weakness of a few sub-sections. I know I have been guilty of making that mistake previously but thankfully I was rightly corrected by others who pointed out the worthy films that I missed out on.

In recent years, Cannes bashing has become a sport in itself yet every year I find that the Un Certain Regard category contains some intriguing titles and better fare than the official competition but it is the Official competition that still gets the most coverage and is the one used to gauge the success of Cannes. Maybe the role of the various categories in Cannes is evolving and changing from what they once were?

On another note, I hope you have multiple rounds with Girish at TIFF. I will be at the festival this year but only for the last few days so maybe I would have missed all the action and intelligent debate by then :)

Michael Guillen said...

Sachin, thanks for stopping by to comment. That's great that you will be at TIFF. I will be there the full run of the festival so let's make an effort to hook up and meet? It would be nice to attach a countenance to the commentary I've come to appreciate over the years.

Your comment leads me to requote what has become something of a guiding light in these constant discussions against film festivals. As became apparent to me at last year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and then within last year's TIFF controversy over the City to City spotlight on Tel Aviv, multiple stakeholders invest in a film festival and it is not the role of festival personnel to satisfy the concerns of all its constituents; that would be—as Bailey implied in his response to Greyson's boycott last year—impossible. However, the ongoing negotiation of conflicting investments is requisite. Absent the satisfaction of resolution, negotiation is the next best thing we've got. “This negotiation, in other words, is not incidental to the festival institution itself, but crucial to both its function as an event and to the way that the festival is understood as a cultural phenomenon. We might understand this as suggesting that the constant public discussion of the battle of festivals for aesthetic autonomy from the varying pressures of Hollywood, audiences, critics and corporate sponsors is theoretically misleading. The festival cannot solve these conflicts. Rather, it has an interest in playing them out in the cultural public sphere. (Emphasis added.)" (Daniel Dayan, “Looking For Sundance: The Social Construction Of A Film Festival”. Published in Moving Images, Culture and the Mind, 2009:18-19).

Sachin said...

Thanks for your kind words Michael. That's great you will be there for the entire duration. I would love to meet you in person as I have enjoyed your amazing interviews & writing for a very long time now :)

I will know a bit more about my schedule in the next week and will be in touch.

Marilyn said...

You, Girish, and Fujiware were my touchstones in composing my "wrap" of the 2010 CIFF. I couldn't really add anything global to the discussion, but the strong emotions CIFF always generates in me and these back-and-forths encouraged me to reflect on my experience and my mission in covering the festival. Hope you find something in this:

Michael Guillen said...

Marilyn, thanks for stopping by to comment and to offer your perspective on this discussion. For purposes of easy access, I recommend your piece to my readers and link to it here.