I have been coming to the Rotterdam festival since 1978, within a few years of its founding. Way back then it was a small, very filmmaker friendly matter, set in a small building, cozy and comfortable, and a good place to meet other filmmakers in a close way. I think back then I was here with Angel City, though I am not sure. The city then was a drab and slightly depressing place, with ugly 50’s and 60’s architecture done on the cheap after the place had been flattened during WW2. The grim winter weather didn’t help the impression given of a desolate urban realm.
After that, once the Berlin festival – where I had been a “regular” from the 1977 to 1993 – declined, in the mid-90’s, to accept digital work on an equal basis with celluloid film, I shifted and came rather regularly to Rotterdam, which had accepted electronic work without hesitation. I recall a visit back then, and on arrival looking in the catalog to see which department they’d put my film – a digital feature that had cost me a few hundred dollars. Looking in the avant-garde and whatever sections I did not find it, but then discovered it in the main program, which on the next page had some million plus dollar film. I liked that attitude.
Over the years I returned – I don’t know how many times, but many – and watched as it grew into a major festival, yearly showing 300+ films, with new cinemas blossoming to accommodate it, and I worried it would lose its friendly manner. It didn’t. And I prized it as a festival that actually had an audience, a local one, which would come to any kind of film and usually provided a good house for them. My screenings were always 2/3rds or more full, Q&A sessions were lively and intelligent. It made coming to the festival seemingly worthwhile, even if I knew my work was not “marketable,” a matter which seemed increasingly to come into play as the years went by: they established the Cinemart, for filmmakers to make contacts with producers and buyers; they set up the Hub Bals fund (named after the festival’s founder) to help 3rd world filmmakers get on their feet; and it did what it could for those entering the business. It was one of the best festivals I had been to for independent filmmakers.
Last time I was here, 3 years ago, I attended Nathaniel Dorsky’s retrospective and saw him sell out a 100 seat theater five nights in a row with different programs, and the festival scheduled some repeats. We – Nick, Marcella and myself – had a great time. And my own film, Imagens de uma cidade perdida, also drew good audiences and responses. Three years ago.
This time around has been a completely other story: while a touch late in the festival, it immediately seemed to me that there were far fewer people here – the professional kind and spectator kind – than in the past. Inquiries with some regulars confirmed my sense of this. And when it came screening time, at 7pm – a good hour – in a good cinema (Cinerama) I secured an audience of around 30 people, mostly older (my age, more or less, and understandably so as it is a film about/for my generation). During the screening a handful walked out, only 3, younger, stayed for the Q&A. Well, yes, it was by then a bit late for oldies, but not that late. I would have liked some to stay so I could get an inkling about what older people see/think about the film. No dice though. The second screening at 10 pm drew 15 people, of which 7 left. 3 again stayed for a Q&A. And, last day of festival, at an 11 am screening there were 10 people.
What happened? I accept I don’t make audience grabbers, or films that work commercially – I make no effort to do so, and accept my very much minority status. And I know well the world of fashion and style is fickle and changing, and that by most measures I am now an ancient fart. But… I’d like to say it was towards the end of the festival, or have some simple explanation like that, but my off-the-cuff reading is something else.
Entering the communal spaces of the festival I noted that nearly everyone younger was either working as staff for the festival or eager newer filmmakers. Almost everyone else was older – the pro’s, the critics, and the audience. Aside from a cohort of younger filmmakers, these festivals feel like geriatric conventions. As my friend Mark Rappaport told me a few days ago, having come up a week before to install an exhibition of his film-based photo-collages, everyone of the old friends he met all said something that between-the-lines read, “Oh, you’re still alive!” I think these festivals, along with the cinema in general, is in the midst of a profound social shift, expressed in myriad ways – from attention spans to hard fiscal matters to shifts in tastes and interests. Younger people prefer video games, texting, whiling the time away on-line with one thing or another. They seem hardly to notice the distortions of wrong screen ratios, or have a tolerance for slow pacing, or lack of plot-as-core function of a visual medium. And, for the most part, whether with the specifics of film or art, or the broader matter of society and politics, most seem to have almost no grasp of history. Of course there are exceptions – even a cluster of a seeming counter-movement of those who do acquaint themselves with history, see meditative work, whether Benning or Dorsky and others, as a palliative to the frenetic pace of the times (though I observe that some of those young friends of mine seem avid users of Facebook and other fragmenting social media.)
Over the decades I’ve noticed, as have others, that the cinema seems to go through local cultural waves – rising, collapsing, rotting inside in one place, while refreshed in another: the focus of creative interesting work seemed to culturally shift like some kind of social Rorschach test. Italy in the postwar period to the mid-60’s; France a touch later; then Germany and elsewhere, and in a spotty manner many other places in a handful of individual filmmakers. These days in various Asian settings and South America. (The same phenomenon could be seen in other arts, high and low – whether painting, music, theater.) My impression is that the cinema is limping to a kind of death, its myriad avenues explored and exhausted, and then in the embrace of pure commerce, delivered a mode of a Mafia kiss. To paraphrase Ingmar Bergman’s metaphor, it is like a snake-skin filled with maggots, producing movement giving the illusion of life in the throws of death.
Which, in some ways, is appropriate. Though some few persist, for example, mosaics are not exactly the state-of-visual arts, nor in reality is oil painting. Mediums technologically arise, are worked, and then are replaced by newer ones. And both human and broader biological records show the same is true for any culture.
My grimmer sense is that the cinema is a diversion from the rising avalanche of far more serious matters confronting our species, and in some highly oblique manner, the larger turning-away signals a kind of recognition, for better and worse. The cultural reality of people buried in their electronic toys – texting, playing a video game, watching some lame TV or movie – which one can see on any subway from Seoul to New Delhi to Paris to New York, all betrays a profound disconnect, a desperate collective effort to be distracted from the obvious calamity we are already immersed in and which we do not want to see or acknowledge. The old cinema, Hollywood’s dream factory, and all its off-shoots of “serious” work, still holds a mode of internal coherence which represents a negative challenge. Better in these times, ironically, the short bursts of Twitter, of utterly fragmented habits, which render the world into a fractal and unreadable social cubism – seeing everything simultaneously from all possible angles which leads not to enlightenment, but total obfuscation. The better to hide and evade the tsunami of the future, which is writing itself ever more clearly and requires ever more frenetic modes of avoidance. And in which, in our desperate lunge to outrun it, we hasten its arrival with the very tools and toys we use.
The last time I was here in Rotterdam, I spotted Raul Ruiz wandering the area reserved for the professionals, his face betraying that death was nearing him. He was alone, walking as if lost, among people who in the movie-biz manner all knew him, and he looked for all the world to me as if he was wondering what the hell he’d done with his life, making films, one after another, as if trying to outrun his own death. He died a few months later, I suspect feeling empty as one of his convoluted films which tended to be formalist exercises absent any real content, much beloved by film critics if few others.
Perhaps it is a good thing that cinema is dying or dead.
On a more pragmatic level I did manage to see a few films:
Til Madness do us Part – a four hour documentary by Wang Bin, showing the daily life inside an insane asylum in a poorer area of China. As the inmates are, the spectator is trapped in a closed courtyard, endlessly circling, entering barren and squalid rooms where 4 or more share the space and sometimes the same beds. The doctors are harsh, delivering up the daily doses of drugs to pacify the inmates; there are those clearly off-the-beam, and others who seem not so crazed, though living in this setting would tax the most sane. Never boring, the film catches the viewer in a cross-fire of thoughts: sometimes events seem almost orchestrated, sometimes the inmates seem wise to the game and appear to be “acting” for the camera. One feels a voyeur, violating the space, complicit with the filmmaker. At the conclusion some suspicions are obliquely answered as title cards indicate that those committed range from violent criminals who have murdered someone, some committed by family, some for “extreme religious belief” (it is the area of China adjacent muslim regions) or political problems.
Japon – apparently a re-cut of the Reygadas film of some years back. I have never seen one of his films. I took an hour of this one and left both a bit bored; annoyed with the aesthetics (extreme wide-screen, scruffy DV or some other relatively low-res medium which seemed counter to the wide-screen and landscape images); and I figured where it was headed – sex and gore. It didn’t warrant the hour I gave it, and certainly not another.
Bella Vista – shot in and around Missoula, Montana, a first film from Vera Brunner-sung. An interesting and good, though flawed film, but worthy and good for taking a shot at skipping conventional modes and instead using a rich mosaic approach with the thinnest narrative thread. Long shots, no explanations, but it held together well despite the minor problems. Much more interesting than the numerous American indies who imagine a “hip” sit-com in old-fashioned movie/tv cinematic syntax is worth doing.
And I think I saw another but it must have left no impression since I can’t recall just what. Or did I even see another one?