30 octobre 2008

Mushroom festivals

Via Michael Guillen at The Evening Class and his recent post on "Film International Special Issue on Film Festivals (Vol. 6, Issue 4)" :
Dina Iordanova :
  • 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?
Two years ago, Frodon candidely complained in Cahiers there were TOO MANY films released every week in France... Likewise, could there be such a thing as TOO MANY festivals? My answer is : this is ridiculous, on both counts.

Toronto and Venice lock horns over the spot for greatest September festival... Battle of the Premieres, and lost virginity for new films, thunder stolen, adopted auteurs swap, Star sighting and TV coverage, clash between Gala screenings and award-worthy artfilms, festival missions and festival audience.

Last month, some critics (Adam Nayman, Robert Koehler, Scott Foundas, Mark Peranson, Andrew Tracy) in Toronto had an interesting roundtable on this subject at Eyeweekly. For once we don't hear critics complain about their accreditation badge colour! and they put films first, considering whether they get enough visibility in a program of over 300 films, if Toronto is becoming the show opener for the Oscars, if the line-up is coherent. These are the real problematics.

In Cannes this year there was this documentary, 40 x 15 (2008/Jahan) about the 40 years struggle of La Quinzaine des Réalisateurs / Director's Fortnight, as a parallel section overshadowed or even actively suppressed by the Official Competition, showing the hunt for world cinema discoveries in the hope Berlin would not get them first and that the Official Competition didn't contact them first.

It's very sad to look at a festival curator backstage smooth talking a young director to premiere in HIS line up rather than elsewhere. I understand the dynamics of maintaining the standing of their section, but the superior interest should be the auteur's. I mean, who cares if one auteur "owes" you because you helped his debut film? I don't think the imperatives of the film industry can revolve around the fixed date of a certain festival. Let the guy shine in another festival if he was invited elsewhere. Why should a young auteur be morally tied to a festival, bound to open every films in the same city, being "typecasted" in a certain region of the world?
If a young director discovered by la Quinzaine gets picked up for his second feature for the Competition, it's obviously advantageous for his career, and more prestigious for the film. I'm not comfortable with this bitter rivalry between subsections within a festival, or between the major festivals... There are obviously big money at stake for festivals to collect the most exclusivity... but this business is not necessarily helping Cinema as a whole.
Festivals should be collaborative, instead of confrontational. They should trade auteurs and movies, to make sure the largest number of films get a special spotlight, instead of running after the same "celebrities", and copying a line up we've seen elsewhere...

On the grand scheme of things, it's a good thing that there are more festivals everywhere. It does discredit a bit the exceptional aspect of the events, but they fill a role that the official circuit of theatres doesn't do : exposing foreign and art films to a wider public, as well as offering the "festival culture" to a wider population outside major cities.

There are Festivals (with actual world premières, and prestigious prizes) and festivals (repeating in smaller cities the line up already seen in major Festivals). In term of festival audience, the former are for an elite of critics and insiders, the latter open the doors to the same films to a wider population of local reviewers and cinephiles.

Now there will be a point when too many local festivals compete with the public release of niche films only a limited number of people want to see anyway... and the timing of its release after the festival tour. Will distributors stop acquiring them if their attraction potential is too small and if they already met the better part of its potential viewership on festival screens?
So what is more profitable for the career of a small film? To get a fancy tour around the world to meet festival crowds, or to gamble on a public release and meet the general audience? I don't know.

Until contrary evidence, I think it improves the spread of film culture to let flourish as many local festivals as possible.

28 octobre 2008

Collaboration v. Institution

Clay Shirky shows how closed groups and companies will give way to looser networks where small contributors have big roles and fluid cooperation replaces rigid planning.
emerging technologies enabling loose collaboration will change the way our society works. [See the lecture at TED on video]
"How do groups get anythings done? How do you organise a group of individuals so that the output of the group is something coherent and of lasting value instead of just being chaos? [..]
The answer is to put the cooperation into the infrastructure, to design systems that coordinate the output of the group as a byproduct of the operating system, without regard to the institutional models."
The Blogosphere is exactly that. Web 2.0 builds in a system that allows people to communicate across platforms, countries and institutions, with RSS feeds, blogrolls, and tags. Folksonomy, or collaborative tagging, is an example of user-generated taxonomy that finds its place in the big picture when everyone only deals with the tags that best suit their own need.
Of course tags are not 100% reliable, and it is disconcerting to the conservatives at the Institution, editors in serious newspapers, critics from reputable magazines. But the scale of this new pool of information takes on a completely different dimension. That's why we can't compare the Press with the Blogosphere, point by point! The competition is unfair. And the purposes are not even equivalent.
The wealth of the Internet doesn't function on a Zero-error model like the Press (though we could challenge this proverbial infallibility...) but thanks to statistical laws, the inevitable misinformation can be easily overlooked, and the reliable content will eventually surface. Now the advantage of this new model is that if you accept that EVERYONE (non-academics) is allowed to contribute (for free), to give their personal opinion, their own definition, thus as much potential mistakes, you benefit from a wisdom of global efficiency! We may access a much larger range of subjects, trivia and sources than if a radically smaller number of Institutions struggle to publish these informations one by one. The accuracy of the Blogosphere is in its size.

A blog shall never threaten the authority of a newspaper (maybe a couple of lucky bloggers, for exceptional reasons), the Blogosphere shall not be substituted to the role of Institutions. That's why the defiance is ridiculous on both sides. The Blogosphere is like a anthill, where the activity of the individual doesn't matter, as long as the global community prevails in the end. The contribution of many benevolent bloggers generates an ensemble of powerful content for the Internet-savvy reader. There is no obligation of regular periodicity, dispatch of topics, organisation of work, because the enormous crowd shall eventually cater to all imaginable needs. This is because every blogger does whatever they want/like that the resource of the Blogosphere is constantly alimented with fresh new insights that the reader is able to hand-pick for a custom reading.
The activity of the writer and the activity of the reader are totally distinct online from the old paradigm of the paper media. We no longer follow the ONE source we were conditioned to trust, we are empowered by the choice to elect our own content.

"As with the printing Press, if it's really revolutionary it doesn't take us from point A to point B, it takes us from point A to chaos. The printing Press precipitated 200 years of chaos, moving from a world where the Catholic Church was some sort of an organising political force to the treaty of Westphalia when we finally knew what the new union was the nation-state. Now I'm not predicting 200 years of chaos... but 50 years in which loosely coordinated groups are going to be given increasingly high leverage. And the more those groups forego institutional imperatives, like deciding in advance what's going to happen or the profit motive or the leverage they'll get. And institutions are going to come under an increasing amount of pressure, and the more rigidly managed and the more they'll rely on information monopolies, the greater the pressure is going to be. And this is going to happen one arena at the time, one institution at the time. The forces are general but the results are going to be specific. The point is not that we're going to transition from only institutions to only cooperative framework. It's going to be much more complicated than that. But it's going to be a massive reajustment. And since we can't see in advance what's coming, we might as well get good at it."
The parallel with Film Criticism follows the same pattern. The Institution is the anointed official Press, and the Collaborative is the pro bono amateur blogosphere. And the conclusions are identical... we can see the first results already in the recent economic crisis of the paper business model. It just doesn't work like it used to anymore!
Readers feel less enslaved by the hegemony of a relatively small number of venues emitting the news, and they want to diversify their choices, instead of staying faithful to a particular revue, like if they were football fans... The consumers are less "captive", subscriptions are less sustainable, but even the quality of these magazines are less permanent as they used to.
And the flourishing offers online give the power back in the hands of the consumer. Readers don't have to settle with the meagre choice of the Press Establishment, they may now find riches on the Internet or even create their own content for other readers.
The exclusivity of official and reliable information is over because it is available to all : IMDb, Wikipedia, GreenCine Daily, Google... Is it dangerous? Only to the economic model of the paper Press. But I don't think that we should see this as a danger of misinformation in the big picture of Film Discourse. This is a chance to bring in more people to the table, spontaneous candidates, passionate cinephiles, from diverse background, new profiles, people who would have been turned down or discouraged by the Institutional route...

25 octobre 2008

Online Cultural Credibility

More from Adrian Martin's Valdivia speech on The State of Film Criticism (see previous post)
Adrian Martin : "the Internet is an enormous “delivery system” that of course can carry every kind of film criticism, journalistic, middle-range or academic."
"Many older, established critics are nervous about the Internet. Some University film teachers, also are worried. They suspect that what appears on the Internet lacks cultural authority, and it is unprofessional. It is a kind of democratic nightmare, everybody shouting their stupid opinions all at the same time. It seems, to some people, like an unholy chaos."
This is key here to stop using the word "internet" as some sort of overarching cultural entity, a homogeneous community, a rival to the Press industry or TV... The internet is no competition nor an alternative to the news media, it is a NEW media.

Like Adrian Martin says, the internet is only one of many means of communication for the cultural voice to express itself. A DELIVERY SYSTEM, like the telephone is. We don't blame the telephone, as a tool, for all the useless information it is used for everyday. We don't question the reliability of this entire network system when we need to use it to deliver serious matter. Likewise the internet is not responsible for the amount of crap output. Only people, writers and readers alike, choose the level of culture they put in/expect from the internet. The new cultural entity is not the internet itself, but something people make their own : a myriad of cultural identities assembled in self-organised groupuscules. And we can only blame individuals for the misinformation and the inane babbling, not the "internets" as a whole. The internet is serious when we use it seriously, it is casual when we use it casually.

We could use the same deceiving straw man (directed at the evil internet) to describe the Press as an unreliable bundle of highs and lows, if we lump together News of The World and The New York Times.... just because they are both newspapers published on paper by the "Press industry".

I'm glad paper critics start to give up on this primary aversion to this technology, to speak of the blogosphere for what it is, for its potential (see the latest NYFF Film Criticism roundtable) and not by equating it with its lowest common denominator, its bad apples (see an earlier NYU roundtable this year).

Adrian Martin : "You will notice that it is in the comparatively smaller countries that these important initiatives are happening, places like Chile, Argentina, or my own Australia. But not so much yet in England or America or France, the “old world powers” that are expressing all this anxiety about crisis and the “loss of solid values and standards” in criticism."
Adrian also mentions an alliance of the overlooked "small countries" from the Southern hemisphere, against the cultural hegemony of the North. I agree with the unfair imbalance, this is a constructive development, to strengthen the "underdogs" in the meantime. But I'm not sure the confrontational polarity will help to make disappear the divide on the long term. We need to break down the monopoly of the North altogether. We don't need to live in a world entrenched in a North v. South mentality.

I agree that all this noise around the alleged "film criticism crisis" (as if it was a new phenomenon) in the North is futile and misdirected, especially when we read their inadequate, outdated, reactionary concerns. Although it is always welcome to get them critics to take a self-reflexive look at the state of their profession losing touch, day after day, with the quickly evolving reality of cinema, media and cultural consumption.

Adrian Martin : "Too often, we go into a new technology, with its new possibilities, with the same old ideas of what a publication should be, and what it should do. In terms of a “middle range” film magazine, this means we head straight for the latest interesting films, the latest Festivals, the latest books; we do interviews and write reviews, we talk about directors, and do some “overview” essay pieces. But this standard “spread” is not enough anymore, it is blocking our critical, intellectual imagination. We need to completely redefine what a “film magazine” is or could be, and I am interested to hear how my colleagues respond to that challenge."
"And when I see the latest amazing mixtures of these elements in the best films shown here at Valdivia, I know we have to hurry up to produce a new kind of film criticism, a criticism that is proper to our time."
Indeed! And what should be this new form of criticism relevant to our contemporary appropriation of culture and cinema? This is a vast subject...
  • Online film criticism is no longer censored by editors and sponsors with a populist agenda.
  • Online film criticism doesn't need to please the largest crowd, and may dedicate all its time to niche subjects and small crowds without risking to waste investments.
  • Online film criticism can hand-pick its own selection of films without the pressure to cover every weekly releases imposed by distributors.
  • Not writing about a film is also a form of disapproval, and it allows to spend more time on films requiring in-depth treatments (both admirable achievements or offensive films).
  • Online film criticism is open to interaction/collaboration with the reader, to turn the reader into a writer.
  • Online film criticism is immediate and reactive, instantly updatable to avoid the spread of errors or misinformation.
  • Online film criticism is multimedia. It can freely use image, sound and video to better suit the moving picture material criticized.
  • Online film criticism is hypertextual and multidimensional (spatial/temporal).
  • Online film criticism is polymorphic, taking any, every form necessary to suit each film, each topic, contrary to the stereotyped format (length, content...) imposed by the Press.
  • Online film criticism is international, in touch with every territory of underexposed cinema cultures, with other schools of thought, with other markets, with other critics, with other venues, with other cultural fields, across language barriers and taste standards.
  • Online film criticism is participative and amateur, each contributor contributing according to their engagement with the film, contrary to the professional duty for the same single critic to write something on everything, whether (s)he is inspired or qualified to do it.
  • Online film criticism is not based on institutional/academic authority where each article must honour and further the reputation of the paper it appears in. However it is based on anonymous and exceptional contributions which gain authority over time by creating a buzz by itself among its readers (and not because it was published in a reputable magazine).
  • Each article must fight on its own terms to earn a wider visibility thanks to the eventual retribution/recognition by readers and fellow bloggers.
  • Online film criticism is a FREE resource of cultural informations opened to the world (as long as you have a computer hooked up to the web), because culture (or rather the commentary on cultural activities) should be free and shared selflessly among fans.
  • Online film criticism could open a passionate dialogue about Art, between viewers and critics and filmmakers, without formal postures and talking points.
  • ...
This alone would change the face of Film Criticism as we know it. And that's for starters... a whole new world is to be reinvented.

17 octobre 2008

Nomad Cinephilia (Adrian Martin)

Speech by Adrian Martin at the Valdivia Film Festival, Chile (8 October 2008)
"The State of Film Criticism"

Adrian opens with the same categories David Bordwell laid out in his post "In critical condition" (May 14, 2008), to describe the disparity in form and content we can find online today:
  1. - regular short review (periodic journalism)
  2. - mid-range critical longer essay (opinionated, think piece with more distance)
  3. - Academic article or book (in-depth, no periodicity)
And this is very important to make readers aware of this partition of roles among whoever call themselves "film critic". Without such identification of the purpose and intent, the constraints inherent to each writing form, the quality standards of film discourse blend in vaguely into a unique voice or should I say "noise". And readers will complain academics aren't prescriptor of taste enough or that reviewers are too personal. It is very important to know the various levels of discourse and what specific standards they observe. Please, let's stop calling everything written on a movie "Film Criticism". Bordwell explains very well the 4 criteria that make a film writer an art critic (to describe, to analyse, to interpret, to evaluate).

Let bloggers who only care about evaluation or opinion express their impressionistic opinions. Let the actual critics get into formalist details and history without complaining they spoil the film or fail to make reading entertaining. All film writings are not equivalent, and it depends on WHAT writers put in their articles, and HOW they talk about the film that make them either a critic or a reviewer. (I shall come back to that point later)

Adrian also proposes interesting, progressive, constructive ideas on the development of film discourse on the internet. In his book presentation he talks about the "nomad theory" (in another blog of La lectora provisoria) :
Adrian Martin : "The idea of traveling theory is this: you go to a place that invites you, in which you are welcome. A place where you make some new friends. And you bring, humbly in your maleta, your ideas, your concepts, your own points of reference.
You then take your ideas out of your suitcase, and you set them up in the street, in the air. They mix with the local culture, the local language idioms, with the local ideas and situations.
Everyone, in the situation of traveling theory, has to improvise, to meet half-way. There is no fixed, imported truth that is coming from the far-away “centre” of the world.
The centre is wherever you and I are, right now, unpacking our suitcases together.
Traveling theory is all about inventing new ideas, theories, connections. It’s about building a new machine for the present. And then that machine can fly to some other place, to be pulled apart and out together again, differently."
Indeed Adrian Martin is an example of this new internet paradigm, this global culture of the World village, across borders and language barriers. This is what the internet (interconnexion of networks!) is all about and this is the bright future we could hope for a film discourse rid of its territoriality, nationalism and establishment. I don't know his bibliography from the top of my head, but I heard he has published many articles around the globe, he contributes to many small revues, participate to roundtables outside of his country (Australia).
This is the kind of critic we need in the world today. People like the best Festival curators, like Pierre Rissient, Marcos Müller, Thierry Frémaux, Olivier Père, James Quandt... who go out and visit the smallest countries to bring back discoveries. Critics can't just wait at home for the industry to send them the memo with a list of films to talk about in weekly batch format.

Adrian effectively exchanges with critics of other countries, such as Chile (La fuga), Argentina (La lectora provisoria), Netherlands (Filmkrant), Slovenia (Ekran, in English at Girish), Denmark (16:9), Spain (Cahiers España, Tren de Sombras)... who knows where else, and not just with France (Cahiers Atlas) and USA (NYU) and helps to internationalize the critical discourse, to meet and engage with other "schools of thoughts". And the same way we watch our favourite films subtitled, we should also penetrate foreign discourse thanks to translation. Transnational film criticism is the goal of the internet generation. It doesn't matter whether we speak about cinema in English, French or Chinese... we need to find a way to break down the institutional walls put in place by the DVD regions, the distribution market, the extent of the press circulation, and the tongue territoriality. We don't get paid on the internet, therefore we are not subject to commercial competition and other nationalistic embargo. We, isolated cinephiles of the world, passionate about world cinema, must build the bridges that the Movie Industry sees no selfish profit to fund.
Adrian Martin (in Valdivia): "At last, the inevitable has occurred: the big movie companies have decided that they no longer need critics to publicise and discuss their products, to make them known, or give them an added “special cultural value”. The movie companies almost completely control, by now, what newspapers, radio and TV can say about films."
see my post on Critical Fallacy 9 : conflict of Interest on Media Conglomerates.
Adrian Martin : "Today, to put it bluntly from my perspective, it is that “middle range” of film criticism we must commit to, strongly and passionately and vigorously. We must expand this middle range, and pull more into it from all directions. And we must pursue this dream not only in old-fashioned, single-language “hard cover” publications – but in a multi-lingual, cross-cultural way, on the Internet."
This reminds me of the fight for "Le cinéma du milieu" initiated by Ferran in France earlier this year (see my post A French Perspective (Responsibilities)), to defend the production of middle-range artfilms that don't have the big budget of highly commercial projects but require more money than shoe-string films made without expensive sets, costumes and cast. This is a thought-provoking analogy with the Film Criticism scene, both financially (budget cuts at newspapers) and culturally (disdain for middle-of-the-road articles blamed for being too intellectual and too superficial at once), because what matters is to reach out to a wider mainstream audience, and overcome the formal cost to become more accessible.