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about the writer

Chris Fujiwara is a writer, film critic, journalist, and editor. He is the author of Jerry Lewis (University of Illinois Press, 2009), The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber & Faber, 2007) and Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) and the editor of Defining Moments in Movies (Cassell, 2007) and Peter Watkins (Jeonju International Film Festival, 2008).

On Film Festivals, edited by Richard Porton (London: Wallflower Press, 2009)
Reviewed by Chris Fujiwara

Coplan ouvre le feu a Mexico
space.
Coplan ouvre le feu à Mexico

A big topic lately, cinephilia is all over the Web, in scores of blogs, some of which use the word in their titles or mastheads; several books have been devoted to it. A recent issue of the U.S. academic journal Framework contains a dossier that editors Jonathan Buchsbaum and Elena Gorfinkel organized around the question, "What is being fought for by today's cinephilia(s)?" This question is ultimately that of cinema's existence, of what the cinema is and what it means at this moment, now — a question that's tied directly to the question of the film festival as an institution that nourishes and shapes cinephilia.

Making the festival an object of study and criticism is, then, an urgent task, and the publication of On Film Festivals, an anthology edited by Richard Porton (Wallflower Press, 2009), is a welcome and important event. The book makes it clear that though festivals have a glamour that partakes of "the transformative power of ancient rituals," as Porton puts it in the introduction, and though they may seem to exist purely to facilitate the pleasure of viewers, they need to be considered in more down-to-earth terms: not as a sphere apart from film distribution, but as an established, if volatile, distribution circuit. Porton's contributors differ on where they make their taxonomic cuts through the global festival sphere and in how they think about the different audiences and functions festivals serve, but they agree that the festival circuit has become a crucial distribution avenue, replacing the largely vanished art cinemas that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s and providing what is for most viewers the only possibility of seeing certain films in a theater, while also providing for many films their only chance to be shown in a theater.

The economic implications of this situation warrant investigation. I wish to take up, however, another aspect: the question of a festival culture. While this question does not escape being a theme for several contributors to Porton's book, their essays themselves offer material for studying it inasmuch as they are, intentionally or not, products and exhibits of the culture that sustains festivals (while also being sustained by festivals).

People who attend festivals break down into three groups: festival cosmopolites (including distributors, critics, and festival directors and programmers) who come to see films and to network (all the contributors to On Film Festivals, except Atom Egoyan, belong to this category); the local audience (which includes corporate sponsors and government bodies as well as the filmgoing public); and those (filmmakers, film companies, sales agents) who attend out of a professional interest in a single film or event or a small block of them.

Independencia
space.
Independencia

If the gulfs that separate these groups tend to stay unbridged, within the cosmopolite contingent there is another divide just as deep, based on taste. On one side are ranged those happy few who are interested in the most "difficult" cinephilic fare (which may include popular films of the past shown in retrospectives); on the other side, everyone else. This taste divide is never more apparent than at the closing ceremonies of certain competitive festivals that stack their juries with cinephiles: the grand prize and the audience prize almost always go to different films. (And if the main jury is relatively mainstream, the FIPRESCI jury can often be counted on to make the cinephile choice.)

Among the cinephiles, a rigid consensus has made the same list of current auteurs all over the world: Kiarostami, Hou, Pedro Costa, Apichatpong, Lisandro Alonso, Jia Zhangke. The predictability with which each new work signed by these names is championed in cinephile circles is exceeded in tiresomeness only by the hand wringing that ensues when one of these figures releases a work that strikes a critic as falling below established standards, or by the self-congratulatory tone and exaggerated language adopted by the inevitable maverick critic who decides to go all-in and attack one of the sacred directors. Moreover, there has emerged what James Quandt identifies in his contribution to On Film Festivals as "an international arthouse-festival formula:… adagio rhythms and oblique narrative; a tone of quietude and reticence; an aura of unexplained or unearned anguish; attenuated takes, long tracking or panning shots," etc. Films that obey this formula win awards and critical applause not because they do anything interesting, but merely because they do the same kind of thing that was liked before.

The problem, then, is a calcification of taste. Still, there is no need to get worked up over it, I will be told: the admirers of Hou and Kiarostami are right, of course. Yes, but at what cost? Perhaps at that of a whole middle range of cinema, neither grossly commercial nor purely cinephile, that might prove legitimately interesting and that might win attention and support if it weren't routinely passed over in favor of critics' vested interests. All right, I will be asked, but does this middle range of yours really exist, or is it just a theoretical construct? I could answer that I know very well it exists, both in mainstream commercial cinema and in micro-budget independent cinema, and if examples don't jump to mind it's because lately I've been seeing almost nothing but pure-cinephile films. (I could also name some well-known directors who for some reason have not cracked the Hou-Kiarostami circle but stand at its gates, doing work that is deemed too personal and idiosyncratic or that is for some other reason out of fashion among hardcore cinephiles: Amos Gitai, for instance.)

Part of the problem has to do with rhetoric. Works are lauded as "challenging" that really challenge nobody, and the word "challenging" (like the word "radical") is used, reflexively, to glamorize the objects of cinephilic affection and valorize the taste of those who value them. So little effort is spent on defining who or what needs to be "challenged," and how that might happen, that a reader who decides to become immersed for a while in cinephilic discourse must soon conclude that the enemy was thoroughly vanquished long ago and is being evoked now and then just for nostalgic gratification.

Let me be clear. It's not that those who prefer Pedro Costa to James Cameron are wrong. How could they be? It's that there is no real battle between Costa and Cameron. It's not the same cinema, not the same field, not the same stakes. The cinema does not exist. There are multiple cinemas in different spaces. The institution of the festival demonstrates this most clearly. Any festival that lasts more than two or three days and that shows more than 30 films is a multiple space. Vienna, or Rotterdam, or BAFICI, or Pusan are not single festivals, but bunches of concurrent micro-festivals each specializing in a different kind of film and catering to a different audience.

So pervasive and fixed is this "niche" syndrome that festivals, instead of uniting viewers, isolate them in micro-experiences that appropriately end up getting detailed in diary-like reports destined to be read by almost no one (as Adrian Martin points out in his contribution to On Film Festivals, "there is surely no genre of film criticism that is more ephemeral, or of less 'general interest,'" than the festival report). The viewer gets sealed up securely in a private festival bubble where everything reinforces existing prejudices or at best facilitates preordained, predictable discoveries (along the lines of: someone who saw Stout Rain at Rotterdam told me I would love it, and naturally he was right).

As Martin writes, "The niche-oriented festival merely confirms spectators — or, rather, gangs of spectators — in the already-established prison-house of their frequently rigid, exclusive tastes." But the same can be said for viewers whose prison-houses are relatively capacious: those who, deeming the Riccardo Freda retrospective and the Raya Martin premiere equally obligatory, and perhaps burdened by some professional or quasi-professional responsibility to see other films they aren't really interested in, attend many different sections of a festival.

These viewers are to be pitied most. For them the battle of taste has been called off, with everybody winning. They are the human form of the contemporary festival: a realm where multiple tastes have license to coexist tamely, not challenging one another and not competing with one other. The festival is indeed that utopia on which the bright side of globalization constantly shines: a space where all the different kinds of films we love are shown — which confirms that all the different kinds still get made (or found, reprinted, and restored), which in turn proves that, in spite of the destructive strategies of Hollywood and the regime of stupefaction imposed by the mass media, we live in what, cinematically speaking, comes close enough to being the best of all possible worlds that any contestation is really so much impractical sour grapes: a world where everyone is doing what they are supposed to do: directors direct, appreciators appreciate, programmers program, sponsors sponsor, juries give prizes.

So I find Porton's book, good as it is, both alarming and dispiriting because it makes this outlook so clear without coming up with a way to challenge it. With all the astringency they can muster, the most caustic and disabused of Porton's writers are unable to put much of a smudge on everyone's rosy image of the film festival as a land of perfect pleasure. They pretty much agree that certain festivals are bad — Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance, and perhaps Toronto — and they acutely analyze the influence those festivals have on the fates of films and film culture. But these are easy targets. None of the contributors gets to the criticism that needs to be mounted: of the role of film festivals — including, and especially including, the good festivals — in stabilizing and legitimizing a dismal world hegemony. As we start the second decade of the 21st century, the art form of the 20th century is a minority, and festivals are its ghetto.

Chris Fujiwara
© FIPRESCI 2010

 

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undercurrent

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bullet. # 6 (4.2010)
bullet. # 5 (5.2009)
bullet. # 4 (10.2008)
bullet. # 3 (11.2006)
bullet. # 2 (7.2006)
bullet. # 1 (4.2006)

 

issue #6 (4.2010)


Contents

bullet. Retrospectives
bullet. The Big Circus
bullet. Festivals with Alexis
bullet. Then and Now
bullet. Indonesia
bullet. Cem Mil Cigarros
bullet. Apichatpong
bullet. On Film Festivals
bullet. Assayas/Debord
bullet. Ethics of Criticism
bullet. Metropolis Found
bullet. Targets
bullet. Gomorra
bullet. Distant
bullet. The Limits of Control