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Arrived back from more or less six months on the road, with a small bit having to do with film festivals, screenings and the other chores of the filmmaker life, and settled into my “home” in Butte, and began the final work on two new films – ones mostly shot last September, and November.  Features.  Both looking pretty good.

The trip involved a number of screenings, of older work and new.  For the most part the audiences were sparse, and talk with those showing them suggested this is now the norm.  To my glance the audiences were also generally rather older.  White hair or none.  None of this was a surprise for me – I’d been noticing this trend for a decade and more.  I have my thoughts on it, of course, and shortly I’ll be writing in more depth at http://www.jonjost.wordpress.com.

For the moment though, in anticipation of completing these new films (and proceeding on to the other 3 or 4 awaiting editing to completion, not to mention shooting some others and preparing others, along with the Mt. Everest of photography to tend to, painting when the weather shifts, and recording some music), I decided to go ahead and do something I’ve been considering for a while.  Today  wrote the following letter to the Locarno festival, and sent along the same to the Venice festival.

Hi

As a past guest of your festival – long ago in the 70’s, and more recently (!) with OUI/NON in 2003, I write to say a few things.

Having made films for now 51 years, and having watched with others the drastic changes in the world of cinema I have decided for myself a few things:

1. I will not fill out festival entry forms, pay entry fees, or other things time and energy consuming; I will  inform festivals of new work and if they wish to see it they can do so on-line (Vimeo with password), or pay for a DVD or preferably BluRay to be sent to see it properly.

2. As for the kind of work I do there is no longer even the hint of a “market” and festivals have become more or less the default “market,” when my work is shown I will need some kind of payment.  A ticket/hotel for some place I might want to go; or money.

I know this may sound arrogant or whatever you wish to call it.  So be it.

I am continuing to make work – by my estimation, and that of some others, certainly up with my best, and hopefully even better.  This year’s Coming to Terms is certainly one of my best. (Ask Mark Rappaport, or Jonathan Rosenbaum.)  Still I’ll be lucky if several thousand people, world-wide, ever see it.

I have two new films virtually finished:

BLUE STRAIT, likely around 80-85 minutes, about a middle-aged gay couple breaking up (though this is hardly a “story” film.)

THEY HAD IT COMING, close to 90 minutes, an exploration in genre, literature, story-telling.

If you are interested in seeing, let me know.

Thank you

 

I have no idea how this will be received by the festivals – perhaps they will actually understand, and if not generally, then at least individually, make a change.  Or perhaps they will regard it as the whining of a disconsolate old filmmaker fallen from the day’s fashions.  Perhaps they’ll wonder why my secretary can’t do these things, not comprehending that I have no secretary and never did, and that the simple process of filling out ill-designed entry forms is far more hassle than they imagine.  Or myriad other things.  I’ll have to wait and see.

The simple reality from their side is that there are thousands of people willing to go through the hoops chancing for the brass ring, so if my little kvetch irritates them, it’s no problem for them.  From my side it is that whether my film (and I) go to a festival, it will make little difference in tangible terms – perhaps 50 or 500 people will see it; perhaps someone will write something about it.  But almost certain, in the tsunami of films cranked out these days, it will be swept away and out of view and consciousness in a matter of weeks or a month or two.  And I won’t accrue a penny.  There will be no “sale.”  At best I can scribble that the film showed in festival X.   For others it may be that the applause of an audience, or positive words from viewers provides “something” but in my case it really isn’t so.  I need no pats on the back or words of encouragement.  I need to make a very modest “living.”

 

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In the next week or so I hope to post a longer, more considered essay on where things seem to stand with regard to this kind of cinema in the current world, and whether there is any more seeming point to it at all.    As you can imagine, I have my doubts.

 

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Note:  I am in process of setting up a VOD Vimeo channel of my work.  Not being Hollywood or able to anticipate high numbers, my price is $10 to stream, $20 to download.  First one up is Angel City from 1976.   You can buy DVDs for $30+ shipping and processing by PayPal, and BluRay disks for more (I recommend for the HD films and a few others.)

[An update now on June 10 2104:  neither the Locarno festival, nor the Venice festival gave me any response to my letter.  In the case of Venice, I know its director, Alberto Barbera, personally, and addressed to him, along with his staff, my letter.  Whether this signals that my never-more-than-modest leverage with festivals is now in the minus range (some time ago I was instrumental in getting Joao Pedro Rodriguez’ film O Fantom into the Venice competition when Barbera was director earlier, in 2002 or so), or whether raising the topic of the, uh, well, exploitation of filmmakers in the name of “supporting” them was too hot a matter, or whether my missive was lost in the shuffle, I don’t know.  No information at all is not exactly a useful standpoint for speculation – I “know” only that neither festival sent me a word in response, which, at minimum in my view, was “rude.”]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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The last weeks, breaking my usual pattern, I actually went out and saw some films – 3 in about 3 weeks (!) – which is about what I might see in a year, at least if not going to a festival.  The first one I saw was rather an accident – Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.  I’d gone with friends to see Chasing Ice, but we arrived after the last screening of it, and I noticed the listing of Holy Motors, which I’d read some enticing things about.  Not being a cinephile, I hadn’t seen any previous Carax film.  Everybody agreed, and in we went.  Following the customary horror of bombastic trailers seemingly carefully designed to assure I would never go to them, the film unfolded in a very different mode.  I won’t describe as you can find much elsewhere which sketches it out, from academic analyses that suggest it is a kind of “stations of the cross” (somewhat persuasive argument given the title and the last sequence), to an examination of the wonders and price of the actor’s trade, and so on.  It is perhaps all of these.  Certainly on some levels it was both a celebration of the magic of cinema, and on some others a damning critique of it.  Whatever it was, for me it was a deliriously pleasurable romp, and quite funny as well.  I think I might have been the person who laughed the most in the cinema, particularly in the darker parts.  Gorgeously shot, wonderfully acted, and moving both swiftly but in a manner that left ample time for one’s own thoughts, it happily defied and up-ended customary cinema-theatrical expectations and demanded you just take it on its terms.  My only little reservation is that it was, at bottom, still way too conventional for my desires – I’d like to see Carax apply the same inventiveness he shows here towards coming up with a visual shift of gears as strong as his narrative/story-telling one.  Probably asking too much.

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A week later I was able to go see Chasing Ice as planned.  Having seen a trailer I more or less knew what I was going to get, and knew I wasn’t much going to like it, but I wanted to see the footage of the glaciers.  My guess was right.  The film follows photographer James Balog (whose photography is of the slick National Geographic kind), as he pursues shooting our vanishing glaciers with a panoply of time-lapse cameras stationed in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and elsewhere.  Along the way the technical problems of building and placing the cameras is highlighted, which for a filmmaker like myself is of interest.   Unfortunately a larger part of the film is given over to a  Herzogian self-glamorizing of Balog, who becomes such a focus that it leaves the sour taste of a promo piece.  We see him descending into a crevice as the track tells us his doctor said he shouldn’t do such things owing to a bum knee acquired doing such things and (heroically) doctored up 4 times.  Like Herzog the images in front of his camera are supposed to either take on more importance because the filmmaker is there, or the filmmaker is supposed to be heroic because he is there.  My view is stuff it: you want to do this, so do it, and get your ego out of it.  Balog in this case imagines to side-step this as formally he wasn’t the director, but instead nominally one Jeff Orlog is.  But it is clear who was calling the shots as it were, and the fake dramas inserted with multiple camera people and helicopters all betray a certain kind of bad faith.  And the film not once acknowledges that it is the very technologies involved in making it which are directly, cumulatively, responsible for the complex range of human-made realities which are causing global warming and the collapse of ancient glaciers and ice shelves, and all the dire consequences the film notes.  This kind of bitter irony doesn’t fit in with the glossy look and intent of this film.  At the film’s end, a vast chunk of ice in Greenland is shown collapsing in a matter of minutes, and the scale is indicated by superimposing a line of the skyline of the southern part of Manhattan, the ice being much larger.  I suppose it is no irony that one of the consequences of this process flooded Manhattan a few months ago.  In their press blurbs, Robert Redford is cited as loving the film.  I bet he flies (a lot) first class.

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And then, at the prompting of Chris McConnell, who came out to Butte to help me in shooting Coming to Terms, I went to check out Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s genuflection to the macho world of war and all that.  Running two and a half hours, the film is never remotely boring, even if much of it is a paper-shoving (or video screen one) procedural, conducted for a good part in institutionalized rooms. Rather, despite one’s knowing the full story before the film begins, it pumps with tension.  Within this genre of classic Hollywood hefty “story-telling” with music dumped over scenes, kinetic camera movements, and all the rest, Bigelow has demonstrated she’s got the biggest balls in tinsel-town.  This is a smart, cerebral slice of filmmaking, loaded with, in the terms of this kind of work, great things – performances, CGI EFX, smart-ass dialog, and all the rest.  Gotta hand it to Bigelow, she has this game down.  Almost.  Actually I found the supposedly hard-to-take torture scenes which open the film for almost half an hour, to be a bit tame, and not quite believable:  Ammar, our victim, face bruised, whupped again and again, is hoisted up in ropes, hanging from his arms.  But, well, not really – instead his arms are limp and he’s sort of standing, which given the abuse he’s undergone doesn’t quite compute.  Other aspects of the torturing scenes – of which there are many – similarly don’t quite tally up as so awful (or is it believable?) as the critics suggested.  My guess is being movie critics they’ve spent their lives in a little bubble of cinematic falsity, and – as is often the case with their take, say, on costuming – they long ago lost any connection to reality and so have no means to judge these things.  Otherwise this film was mounted well, with what appears to be an awful lot of help from the US military, and if what I have read is correct, the CIA and friends.  Which brings things around to the big controversy, the one about torture, and whether the film endorses it, or not.  The filmmakers and some critics assert it does not, it merely shows what was done.  Sort of… it doesn’t show the internal objections made by CIA operatives, and FBI and other governmental agencies, who complained loudly about the torture.  Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal (who is Madame Bigelow’s lover) each say it was creative dramatic license, and it would have gunked up the “story” had these elements been allowed in.  And they are perhaps right (though one can’t know), though what does occur in the film is that without actually saying so, the whole envelope which contains it all works to mount a clear argument that torture was the key to getting the information that led to bin Laden, and, well, heck, the ends justify the means.

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After the film came out, administration figures and others quickly trotted out to say the film was historically wrong, and that it wasn’t torture, but good old fashioned gum-shoe that secured the information, and that, in the words of Obama, seen on a television screen during the film, “America doesn’t torture.”  Yeah, sure.

While not nearly as creatively inventive as Leni Riefenstahl’s films Triumph of the Will, or Olympiad, Ms. Bigelow, sticking to the tried-and-true techniques of Hollywood block-busters of our time, nevertheless has earned her right to stand on the same pedestal with the Nazi propagandist: in bed with the powers that be, making work which glorifies it and then ducking accountability.  If Ms. Bigelow really had any balls she’d tell the military-industrial complex to go take a hike.  But instead she’s done the opposite.  Small wonder she is not championed by feminists.

[For a fuller view on this stuff, see Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone review.]

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Shifting to quite another scale, this week a little partial retrospective of my own work was scheduled in a nice Portland alternative cinema, the Clinton Street theater.  Yesterday, a Monday, a usual dead night for restaurants and cultural things found a grand total of 5 showing up for the screening of, among other things, Angel City (1976), which, among other things, has a scene which skewers Leni Riefenstahl, and as well Hollywood as a part and parcel of the interlocking corporate world which is the US military-industrial-media complex.  Youthful, hip Portland was buried in its electronic stuff in the nearby cafes.  Tonight, a Tuesday, I am told a whole 10 people showed up, of which I suspect most, as the night before, were friends of mine.  Which is to say, on this 50th year anniversary of my filmmaking – which began in Italy in January 1963 – I accept that the defeat at the hands of our corporate masters has been total and complete.  There was never any contest, but those powers have assured there will not be one – in a manner far more clever than Nazi ones.  Most Americans have no idea what has been done, and as good German burghers of the 30’s, they don’t really want to know.  I am sure most Americans do not know what the Homeland Security Agency, and FBI and CIA did to Occupy, or all the rest.

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I hadn’t seen Angel City in some time, and was surprised how relevant its content remains, and how “lively” its cinema aesthetics are, even today.  And far more so that the lame output of our so-called “indies” in all their various guises in the last, oh, 20 years and more.   But it matters not at all.

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The only consolation, if one may call it that, is that this system, unable to check itself, will in rather short order auto-destruct, dragging with it most the planet’s species.  It will doubtless be a rather unhappy and ugly affair of drastic shortages, famine, wars, plague, and, well, hell, the usual four horsemen.  And far sooner than we imagine.  I might just miss it.  Or maybe not.

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