Christie Pitts film festival

Circuits of Cinema

Last month I attended the ‘Circuits of Cinema‘ conference at Ryerson University in Toronto. The conference was impeccably hosted by Paul Moore and Jessica Whitehead, with an excellent team of student volunteers. It was part of the research project of the same name, and also doubled as the annual meeting of the HoMER (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition and Reception) Network. As with any conference, I could only be at one panel at a time, so my notes can only reflect one perspective of a rich and varied event (you can browse the abstracts by location and timeline on this Prospect visualisation). Luckily it was possible to catch up with the presenters you had missed over generous lunch and coffee breaks, the all-day workshop on Quantum GIS, and at a superb after-hours programme which included the premiere of an oral history project with some of the pioneers of Canadian distribution, many of whom attended the screening; and a memorable visit to the Elgin Theatre and Winter Gardens. You may get other glimpses of the conference’s topics under the #Circuits2017 hashtag.

These social aspects are part of individual and collective scholarship, which is why the difficulties that most researchers from the Global South face to travel to conferences are an obstacle to our full participation in any field. The acknowledgement by Paul of those missing voices was an important gesture that should be amplified in future conferences. Also very important is the decision by the organisers to programme plenary panels including emerging scholars, rather than ‘big name’ keynotes. This is important because it makes people more visible to one another, which is one of the roles of a research network. In that sense HoMER is thriving. But there is one of its old objectives that comes back time and again as a horizon to hope for: data integration. With the loss of Karel Dibbets, we lost one of the main champions for the development of common standards and shared datasets for cinema history, and it’s natural to want to take stock.

While Karel’s project, Cinema Context, will continue to develop and to lead the way as a hub for comparative cinema history, I think it is also important to recognise that research in the field is blooming in all sorts of other ways. There has always been a methodological eclecticism in this field that allows people to follow their curiosity, and the disparate nature of our projects is a strength rather than a problem to solve. The platforms for sharing datasets have existed for many years now, but the fact that we have been slow to use them suggests that it is not a priority for everyone, and I think that’s fine.

Perhaps the biggest dataset used by a HoMER researcher is the Kinomatics dataset of global movie times, but unfortunately that is not licensed to be shared. Deb Verhoeven, however, opened the conference with new work on a different, smaller dataset on gender in the Australian film industry. This is an example of where empirical analysis of a relatively modest dataset can generate new insights into how domination actually works. That men dominate the film industry is a trivial observation, but the precise mechanisms through which they maintain this control need to be understood in order to be fought, whether through policy or direct action. Verhoeven gives substance to the concept of network domination, which needs to be brought into play alongside more established notions of hierarchical power and hegemony – but it takes a very skilled data wrangler to spot and name these patterns. It takes a feminist to identify these specific forms of male domination; it takes some theory.

The ‘Gender Offender’ visualisation, using Gephi to show connections between producers and other creatives in Australian film production. By Deb Verhoeven with Stuart Palmer (click on the image to go to Deb’s analysis).

Similarly, studying distribution demands data, but it also demands a certain literacy to make sense of it. Distribution is an ideal arena for modest, grounded theorising. This has been one of the tenets of new cinema history, and so it was not surprising to see this approach articulated with particular clarity in one of the plenary sessions dedicated to more established scholars: Judith Thissen, Keff Klenotic, Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, conference organiser Paul Moore, and Project Arclight‘s Eric Hoyt all had their own ways of weaving historical understanding between the particular and the emergent. The conference also marked the retirement of Richard Maltby, who named New Cinema History and has written and edited some of its key texts. Richard’s recent work on Hollywood’s constant engagement with monopoly law is another example of this multi-level approach. Operating in the high spheres of politics as well as on the fine print of a provincial renter’s agreements, film distribution demands a structural view. However, it is easy to imagine this structure to be more solid, logical and efficient than it actually is. It is made of many overlapping patterns and localised interactions, and the kind of data required to be able to see this is not necessarily “big”. Instead, it might be more useful to have deliberate slices of data collection, used comparatively (I tried to do this when studying early distribution in Scotland, by looking at programming on two single dates across Scotland). In her presentation, for instance, Andrea Cominsky used a sample of 120 films across two seasons in ten exchange areas, allowing her to discuss the granular nuances of film selling during the classical period. This challenges the assumption of rigidity of the run-zone-clearance system, showing that less prestigious films could bypass first-run houses and premiere elsewhere.

One potential problem with film distribution research that places emphasis on systematic data collection is that it excludes most of the more informal types of circulation, and it risks privileging the types of research that are mostly available in Global North countries with reliable government records and digitised newspapers. The risk of overplaying data compatibility is to underplay, for instance, the story of film recycling in Iran as told by Kaveh Askari, where the paperwork indicates a destruction date for films at the end of their distribution, but the reality was that of prints continuing to circulate with a magnetic dubbed track pasted on top of the optical soundtrack, in a local enterprise that grew into its own production studios (and continued to recycle music). Or the story of the circulation of Cantinflas films in Brazil through RKO (as researched by Nilo Couret), or the active role of French distribution monopolies in blocking the circulation of African cinema (researched by Nikolaus Perneczky). The fact that indigenous communities in Brazil are exchanging DVD recordings of their rituals (as Samuel Leal showed) would be invisible from a data perspective.

Cara Caddoo argued that the first African-American distribution outfit, the Lincoln Film Company, were rebuffed in their efforts to market film independently as the kind of ‘hustling’ that was already untenable in the late 1910s. There’s certainly a lot of hustling in today’s film landscape, from crowdfunding indie producers to scrappy new festivals and trendy ‘start-ups’, as well as the vast informal/pirate sector. But the forces of consolidation are always closing in. Witness the missed opportunity of digital cinema, which instead of removing the access constraints posed by the materiality of a film print that cannot be in two places at once, replaced them with digital locks and arcane ways to maintain exclusivity. Leo Rubinkowski traced the emergence of ‘end-to-end facilitators’ in the exhibition industry, that is, companies concerned with the delivery of digital content to screens. Through Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition’s command of 70% of the US theatrical market, satellite delivery of DCPs to proprietary hardware has become the industry standard. However, as Rubinkowski argues, this model doesn’t serve the needs of the independent market, which cannot justify the costs for a smaller release. While there are smaller companies serving that market, the general trend is towards a standardisation of the theatrical film market, with a handful of companies becoming gatekeepers. Ian Robinson’s work on event cinema, Carter Moulton’s work on opening weekends, and Charlotte Orzel’s paper on ‘branded premium experiences’ now constituting almost half of the box office at multiplexes, all show that mainstream commercial exhibition isn’t giving up its love of exclusivity and tight grip on audience choice.

Toronto's Cineforum, holding out against premium branded experiences.

Toronto’s Cineforum, holding out against premium branded experiences.

On the other hand, non-theatrical exhibition was represented by a wild array of historical and contemporary practices. Nora Stone talked about the ITV Community Cinema, which toured PBS documentaries, pointing out that while commercial media counts on the market to increase diversity, public TV does it as part of its remit. In her talk about left-wing film distribution, Tanya Goldman pointed out that, while mainstream cinema distribution consolidated its corporate hierarchies, alternative left-wing film distribution was a collaborative process. The ideal of counter-cinema thus involved both content and context, using politically charged spaces and activating relationships between local organisations and global struggles in a practical way, through propaganda and fundraising. Diane Wei Lewis also talked about Japan’s Prokino (the Proletarian Film League), which took this grassroots approach to filmmaking and exhibition as “everyday interventions”, using first an underground mobile unit and then a network of local organisers. Politics aside, this has interesting parallels with the Highlands and Islands Film Guild, or the National Film Board of Canada, which also combined mobile units and fixed outposts, feeling that the latter allowed for a closer connection with the community.

It is a complex ecosystem, except that that metaphor suggests some kind of symbiotic harmony. There is interdependence, to be sure, but there is also domination. Not all networks are the same. It is hard to think of a historical example in which systematised data collection hasn’t led to an entrenchment of power and exclusion – and yet any emancipatory theory worth its salt has to be able to grasp and act on patterns. So in an academic world dominated by too much comparison, by constant rating and ranking, by shrinking research budgets given to fewer, bigger projects, I am glad cinema history retains its obscure nooks and crannies, its Luddite corners, its little ad-hoc datasets and its irreducibility. I’m glad too for the patient work of formatting data, cleaning spreadsheets, running stats, plotting graphs and maps to find out where all those anomalies fit in or stick out (or where, as Laura Isabel Serna reminded us in the last plenary, the margins constitute the centre). And I’m especially grateful for these opportunities to plug into other people’s curiosity, to weave this web knot by knot whether offline or on – opportunities that I certainly don’t take for granted.

Conference delegates at the Winter Gardens (photo: Paul Moore)

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MOVE

On Saturday 18 February 2017, as part of Glasgow Film Festival, the eighteen students enrolled in the Film Exhibition and Curation Masters at the University of Edinburgh presented “MOVE: A pop-up audio visual experience”. The event was part of coursework in their Applied Learning module. But it was not mere homework – it was an ambitious and inventive evening, taking more risks than any of the other pop-up screenings in the ‘Special Events’ strand. Instead of starting from a well-known feature film title and arranging the space and ancillary events around its plot and theme, the curators here started with a concept (move!) and experimented with its expression in and around film. Or rather – they dealt with the realities of putting on a show, collectively, over the holidays, on a tight budget, and with a big change of plans halfway through. As a learning experience, this is invaluable. I have had the pleasure to read some of the reflections produced by the students, which are nuanced and thoughtful and full of rich connections between the curatorial and film theory and their concrete project.

I had a chance to chat with about half of the group after their final lecture. They asked me to give collective rather than individual attribution to their remarks, and I have also paraphrased for clarity.

The Space

“This was one of the biggest challenges of the project, because we started with the idea that it was going to be happening at Waverley station, it was going to be a very different event. Then midway through the winter holidays that place fell through. and we had to completely reconfigure the way we thought, what this thing is, what the audience is going to do, what we are going to do, and Joytown found us”

One of the attractions of the event was its setting. Joytown is a new venue in a very old building. It is not, however, one of those obvious pieces of Victorian Heritage; it is, and has always been, an unassuming warehousey block where the attraction is inside. It is located on the North-Eastern edge of Glasgow’s city centre, a corner of the city that was badly mangled by the construction of the Glasgow Inner Ring Road in 1971. In the late 19th century, the Cowcaddens area had been notorious for its slum housing as well as its abundance of cheap music halls, theatres, and circuses. The building opened in the 1890s as part of the vast Olympia Hall, leased and transformed over the years by various entertainers who put on Wild West shows, pantomime, and variety. Most famously, it became the Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus in 1897, when legendary showman E. H. Bostock not only brought in exotic animals, but also the latest novelty – moving images.

Joytown Street View

After the First World War,  the building was put to various unglamorous uses, and languished for a while. In the 1990s, that corner of Cowcaddens was re-developed as ‘Chinatown’, with the opening of shops and restaurants to serve the Chinese community. The ground floor of the building now houses the Chinatown restaurant, a large cash-and-carry business and a seafood merchant. On the first floor, until last year, was Reardon’s Snooker centre. This is the part that is now being re-invented as Joytown, one of its old names. At the moment, however, it is a very austere space, to say the least.

“We started to believe in it when we saw the space. We had been taken aback by the change but also when we saw the pictures, we didn’t have a good feeling about that space, because it didn’t look like a space where you would have an exhibition. There was a lot of work to do to change it into something more welcoming to an audience […] It felt like a very big and empty space, so we had the challenge to visually fill it with our messages and the screen.”

The night before the screening there had been a clubnight at the venue so the curators had their work cut out. “We carried a lot of tables”… “we cleaned a lot on our hands and knees”… “Oh, the broken hoover!” The tables were set up cabaret-style. The decorations committee “used their own craft skills to make paintings, to make table decorations”: On each table there was a little battery-operated tealight and a bottle with the flag of an European country painted on it. There was also a programme with the film information and a postcard – a random, vintage postcard, on which the audience was invited to write their thoughts. The amount of collective effort put into the encounter with the audience was visible, and each element seemed to carry a different nuance of the overall sense of the event.

“I did some of my own research because I thought it would be a nice marketing tool. It used to be this massive entertainment complex and had the first zoo in Glasgow… there’s some weird history in that building. Films had been screened there since 1898, so we wanted to use that lineage. It underwent the history of many British cinemas, it was turned into a bingo hall and fell into disrepair, so we felt like ‘cinema is coming back, to where it once was’. I really enjoyed looking at that history.”

Having been used in various combinations of variety theatre, menagerie/zoo, fairground, cinema, skating rink and ballroom, that distant past of pictures and dancing is most appealing for a new life with, well, pictures and dancing. I knew about this history before coming to the event, and my experience was tinted by a yearning to find a connection to that past, to see a spark from their carbon arc projector shining through the century. For the less informed visitor, however, only the more recent history of the building is visible – emblazoned in its snooker livery and football score boards. It was up to the curators to tell a story about the space, as one of the various stories being told.

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When the students first visited the venue, owner Paul introduced them to the history of the building. While he knows about the older entertainment venue part of the story, he has been more keen to emphasise the Chinatown location. This was however seen to be somewhat incongruous with the film programme’s European focus. “He had this idea of putting up Chinese decorations. There were a few elements here and there but we didn’t want this to be at the heart of the exhibition because it would clash with our programme.” Furthermore, the notion of Chinatown did not seem to be particularly compelling for Glasgow residents, as the area is very small and does not have the same significance as in other parts of the world.

This difference in ideas did not get in the way of other aspects of the collaboration with the venue. The owner was on hand to arrange supply of drinks, staff the bar, sort out electrics and tech set-up, and book a DJ for the after-party. When the planned caterers fell through, he also offered “the local knowledge of where we could get the food”. This collaboration was acknowledged with gratitude, and it was also not one-way only. Apart from all the cleaning and tidying, the curators feel like their event has had a lasting impact on the venue.

“He was refurbishing at the same time, so in a way our event also shaped the place. He kept the paintings, he kept quite a few elements of our event so now it’s part of the identity of that space. We were building our event while he was building the space.”

One of those decisions that may have left an imprint on the configuration of the venue was the decision to curtain off a section at the back of the venue as a separate screening room. Here, a different programme of films was shown, including a mash-up of scenes of movement and travel from various movies. A few beach chairs offered a change of posture.

“We had this idea of two screens quite early on, which was another way to break the space up, to give another point of interest towards the back of the venue, and we felt like it gave our idea a bit more texture, to have this other gallery-type of exhibition and then the more cinema-type at the front […] We tried to play on the theme of discovery, people discovering the space without us telling them what to expect. People had to bump into this. It’s exciting when you find something in a space that not everyone knows about, this Secret Cinema notion. A mystery space, this extra layer that a few people knew about and then word of mouth spread it.”

A smoke machine was used in this space, drawing inspiration from the steam that billows around the first film of the programme, the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of A Train to La Ciotat (1896). That ‘train steam’ had the double effect of making the projector beam visible, and evoking the smoke-filled atmosphere of an old cinema. If it wasn’t for the beach chairs this would be like a little nickelodeon, even if it was intended more like a black-box gallery projection room. I saw the same kind of partition used a few weeks later, when Glasgow Short Film Festival used Joytown as a ‘VR Palace’. This shows how MOVE!’s resourceful solution to make the vast open-plan space more interesting was noted and adopted, potentially informing future uses of the venue.

The programme

“It was more than just the films being screened, it was an event happening around us. The way we relayed this on social media was as ‘a cabaret event with film as its main act’, which I think is a nice way to frame it.”

The film component of the evening included ten short films in two sections. The order of the films was carefully planned for variety and balance, with each section featuring some animation, some dance, and some archive material. The programme was shaped equally by concept and necessity. Budget and time set boundaries as to what films could be included. “We were sourcing quite close to the event […] Especially the short films, it was about what we could get and then making it fit into the whole programme”. The challenge produced an inventive, surprising programme, enriched by live music, dance, and words. Two abstract films by Margaret Tait, chosen with advice from Tait expert Dr Sarah Neely, filled the room with colour and joyful music. This found a contemporary echo in the playful Latvian short Choir Tour (Edmunds Jansons, 2012), a crowd favourite. Two very different traditions of experimental film shifted the tone: First was Lithuania’s Ecce Homo (Vidmantas Baciulis, 1972), a once-supressed record of a theatre avant-garde with earnest liberatory politics; then, Enrico Cocozza’s Masquerade (1953) represented that bizarre mid-century moment when Scottish amateur cinema was equal parts bourgeois parlour game and Freudian adventure. Orgesticulanismus (Mathieu Labaye, 2008) was an incredible animation that re-imagined the joy of movement from the perspective of someone who has lost their physical mobility. Another animation and a dance video completed the two sets.

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At the heart of each half, however, was a 15 minute compilation of archive footage from the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. The students had edited this, showcasing the new kinds of skills that the role of a moving image curator may entail in the era of Audiovisualcy. The band Sink accompanied the archive films with their delicate extemporising on accordion, violin and soprano saxophone. Their involvement came about through their previous work with producer Shona Thomson, who is a guest tutor on the MSc and mentored the students through the project. Shona has extensive experience producing live cinema events, especially working with archive film and live music. Last year she produced a Scotland-wide tour of the 1926 animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, with live accompaniment by Sink.

 

For the last film, two dancers performed in front of their screen, only their silhouettes visible against the bright colours. This spatial arrangement was unrehearsed, and the curators recognised that “the dancers were difficult to see [but] because where the projector was, the dancers went over the screen a bit, it was a nice relationship between the dancers and the films being screened.” While I could indeed barely see them from where I was sitting, their presence somehow grounded the evening’s theme with the corporeality of their movement: Liveness made tangible as a shadow on the screen. I was moved by the emergence of something new in that unrehearsed intersection between film, music, and bodies in movement.

“This constellation, with the music part, the dance part, the archive mixes we created for the event, is never going to happen again, so that makes it live and – we hate this word – a unique kind of thing. But I think it worked really well. Looking at the feedback, most people loved it; a few sceptics were looking at the dancers as being maybe too much distraction from the basic idea of accompanying archive film with live music. But I think everyone agreed that the music worked really well and it gave it this variety aesthetic and was also very spontaneous.”

Another aspect of cinema liveness that is easily taken for granted is the spoken word that precedes the films. Here the research and argument that underpin the programme are offered to the audience. The two presenters were confident and professional (though they say it is their first time), neither pompous nor patronising. Taking the introductions as a serious part of the programme, rather than a throwaway couple of lines, sets a good example for all film exhibitors. The Lithuanian film, which was perhaps the most challenging for the audience, was contextualised with an informative, poetic and passionate introduction, and the voice-over was translated live. This not only added to the sense of discovering a gem that we would have not found otherwise (brought back from the vaults of a national film archive), but also shows that the lack of subtitles is not a good enough reason not to screen something.

The audience

 “We didn’t expect people to stay sitting for the whole time, and most of them didn’t move from their seats.”

The change of venue from Waverley Station to Joytown entailed a complete rethink of the audience and of the behaviour expected of them. “When it was going to be in Waverley, it was the intention that it would be on a big screen and people would be walking through, there wasn’t going to be any seating. We imagined an audience that would be there for fifteen minutes, watch it and then move on. So when it became Joytown suddenly we had an evening when people were going to come in and sit down, and watch something.”

This image of the transient audience metamorphosed into an idea of a somewhat mobile audience. Rather than being set up in rows, seating was around tables, and the offer of a free drink and availability of a couple of food options were intended to encourage people to move around the space. The fragmented nature of the programme also provided more ‘exit points’ for anyone wanting a change of scene, and this was reassuring for the programmers, as it took some pressure off the main selection: “Because we were not so confident that our main screen would attract so much attention, that people might get distracted, we wanted to have other things on the side”. However, people had other ideas: “The main programme was really successful, people were captivated by the main exhibition.” Hence, that mobile audience didn’t really materialise on the night. The lights were kept on during the archive films, while the band played. When the lights went down, however, it was interesting to observe how people interpreted this a command to be quiet and watch the film.

 

P1050757 This was interpreted by some of the curators as a result of conventional expectations: “I think it’s the habit…  You buy a ticket to see something and people don’t think of getting up, because you have the screen, something’s on, and even live music, what else do you want? I think people were happy to sit down and enjoy the show in a relatively passive way.” At the same time, there are also things that could have been done differently: “For people to move around more, we could’ve spaced the tables more […] it could have been longer, there could’ve been more time, longer breaks, longer pauses. We could also have offered more of an incentive for people to get up, like more food […] the realities of having to organise the event meant some of those extra things fell through.”

In other aspects, however, audience response was closer to that envisioned. People ‘got’ the theme and enjoyed making connections between the films. The breadth of the topic created space for thinking, and there was an invitation to share those thoughts on assorted vintage postcards which allowed for a more personal, less tick-box approach to feedback.

“The postcards gave us so many things to reflect on. I was struck by how many different interpretations they had about what we were trying to say with the programme, but how they were all floating around the same kind of idea of unity and connection across borders and barriers. I think we did somehow create some clear message that people picked up on, but that was almost accidental. We felt like it was a bit random what we were doing and it was all driven by necessity and circumstance”

The gap between the raucous, mercenary Joytown of a hundred years ago and the thought-provoking experience offered that night is unbridgeable. This is not a zoo nor a carnival. However, this is still a space for thrills. An interesting observation is that the novelty of the space contributed to the audience’s willingness to engage with an unexpected, experimental programme:

“Because this venue is not a traditional theatrical screening venue, I feel like the people are happy to sit there to receive something that is new […] If we had screened the whole programme in a traditional theatre, it wouldn’t have worked, the effect wouldn’t have been as good. The mix of live music, the bar – it is a new experience. People were taking pictures of the space, as well […] as somewhere they hadn’t been before, that was really exciting, and then running these different films to them in this completely new space”.

Towards the end of our conversation, the group tell me that their tutor, Susan Kemp, described the event as ‘a happening’, and they have come to identify with that label. In its situated activation of a curated programme, its one-night-only alchemy, MOVE was perhaps more purposeful than a traditional ‘happening’. However, it embraced the openness of the moment, it allowed meaning to emerge in the gaps between things. MOVE was full of experimentation and discovery, it challenged its creators as much as it rewarded its audiences, and it’s difficult to imagine a more successful learning experience for these emerging curators.

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Post-script: The first published version of this post implied that only a mash-up loop was shown in the partitioned space, and therefore missed the connection to the Lumière film. I am grateful to Noemi who contacted me with additional information and corrected this imprecision.

 

Thank you to the students who shared their time and reflections with me: Noemi Lemoine Blanchard, Camilla Baier, Rachel Pronger, Lennard Kroeger-Petersen, Guangyun Liu, Katy Wale, James McLaren, Paulina Drėgvaitė, Federico D’Accinni, Richard Tanner, Amy Lea.

Thank you to Susan Kemp and Jane Sillars, directors of the MSc.

M&Ds amusement park

Other people’s fandoms

One of the peculiar things about conducting research on certain forms of film exhibition is that I end up watching lots of films that I would not have chosen to watch otherwise. I choose my viewing according to place, rather than title. This makes for an eclectic viewing experience, especially when applied to the intensified frame of a film festival.

Glasgow Film Festival was on last month, and I did not go to any theatrical screenings or watch any of the main programme strands. Instead I went to several of the ‘special events’. This strand has been gaining strength year on year, and it has developed a certain character, with recurring features. Like last year’s Where You’re Meant to Be (Paul Fegan, 2016), this year one of the most popular events was Lost in France (Niall McCann, 2017), screened in a music venue and accompanied with a live gig. There was again an excellent event, MOVE!, organised by the MSc students in Film Exhibition and Curation in Edinburgh (I hope to write more about this in another post). But six of the ten ‘special events’ were not new releases at all, nor part of a retrospective strand. Instead, over the last few years Glasgow has developed a successful stream of ‘eventified’ repertory films. Part of this strategy is what Lesley-Ann Dickson has called ‘spatio-textual programming’, so that a match is sought between film and screening location; live performances or audience activities add further value (Dickson 2014: 150). So, for instance:

  • Dirty Dancing was shown in the Oran Mor’s ballroom, preceded by a tribute dance act and a slice of watermelon;
  • The Thing was screened at -5C in an indoor ski slope, after a themed pub quiz;
  • The Princess Bride was a family event featuring a treasure hunt and a fencing demonstration;
  • and perhaps most successfully, the offbeat vampire thriller The Lost Boys was screened at an amusement park

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All these are fairly mainstream 1980s productions that have acquired varying levels of cult afterlife. What counts as ‘cult’ depends on who you ask, but two common denominators of cult film watching are repeat viewing and ritualistic practices (Mathjis and Sexton 2011: 3). These ways of engagement serve to create a sense of community stretching over time for a relatively small but committed audience. For those outside that sphere, the appeal may not be obvious: had I not been doing this for work, I would not have parted with £14 to watch any of them. I was only vaguely aware of most of these films before booking the tickets, so it was rather surprising to see how much they meant to other people. Festival programmers know what they’re doing by putting on event screenings that encourage the ‘active celebration’ element of cult cinema. Many of the events were sold out long in advance. But what was most interesting was the distinctive character of each of these crowds, and how they differed from my own assumptions about cult audiences.

I must be clear that my project is not an audience research one, but I continued to think about these topics while sitting in a lecture last week by my colleague Dr Becky Bartlett, who was covering the ‘Fandom’ week in our Understanding Audiences course. In her lecture, Becky showed a clip from Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009), in which the makers of Troll 2 (the aforementioned ‘worst’ movie) try to promote a revival of the film through different spaces associated with genre and exploitation films. They are first overwhelmed by the hundreds of adoring fans that turn out for a DIY screening in a New York basement, but find only blank stares at sci-fi and horror festivals.

While there are people who see themselves as cult cinema fans, most cult fandom is more specific. At Glasgow, there were quite distinct audiences, behaving in particular ways, for the films I saw. Almost only women for Dirty Dancing, more mixed and younger audiences in friendship groups for The Thing and The Lost Boys, mainly straight-presenting couples for Secretary, and parents with children for The Princess Bride. The more mainstream acceptability of the festival context makes these good sites for the ‘cult’ to grow, as people attend with their friends and partners. At the Princes Bride screening, for instance, the process of deliberate cultural reproduction was quite evident. Adults were using the opportunity to socialise with one another, but also to introduce their children to a favourite film – or to re-introduce it as a collective experience rather than a DVD at home.

The most rewarding forms of audience activity at these events, then, depend on familiarity with the film, and recognise people’s existing investment in it. The audiences for Dirty Dancing and Lost Boys cheered, whooped, and shouted out key snippets of memorised dialogue. (An obvious observation that is still worth making is that the availability of alcohol before and after some of the screenings had an observable effect on audience participation.) Decor and activities before the screening also set the tone to be more playful and participatory. But that effort is mostly lost on uninitiated viewers, like me. I felt out of my depth most of the time. At The Lost Boys, I missed out on the stage-setting details scattered around the amusement part or on the significance of the location itself. My attempt to dress up as a cool 1980s vampire was half-hearted. In comparison, there were a few hundred people who had absolutely made an effort. The line between cosplay and an 80s-inspired Friday night outfit was blurred, much more than with the rather coy interpretations of S&M to be found at the screening of Secretary. On the one hand, there is not a huge style gap between 1980s vampire bad-boy and modern ‘ironic mullet’ hipster. On the other, these lighthearted cosplayers were comfortable in a fannish persona but hardly defined by their fan identities. Again, Lesley-Ann Dickson has written about Glasgow Film Festival audiences in much more detail and has outlined GFF’s approach to event programming (Dickson forthcoming). What I want to note is how successful the Festival has been in attracting both cult and novelty/nostalgia audiences who may not be interested in the contemporary arthouse core programme.

From the perspective of my own research on pop-up cinema, the fact that restricted and ritualised exhibition is so strongly associated with cult spectatorship is important. It places the pop-up as both a unique experience and a repeat viewing. The intensity of cult viewing is different from the immersion of the cinephile festivalgoer, so the time-limited nature of the event works differently in both cases. I’m aware I’m only scratching the surface here, so your comments are very welcome.

More images from these events can be found on the Festival’s Flicker page.

References

Dickson, Lesley-Ann. Forthcoming. ‘Screening Spaces: Spatio-Textual Programming & Alternative Modes of Spectatorship at Film Festivals’, in Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy (eds) Live Cinema: Cultures, Economies, Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury.
Dickson, Lesley-Ann. 2014. ‘Film Festival and Cinema Audiences: A Study of Exhibition Practice and Audience Reception at Glasgow Film Festival’. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
Mathjis, Ernest and Jamie Sexton. 2011. Cult Cinema. Malden, Mass: John Wiley.

Screens (1)

Here’s a video I put together with images of a hundred screens on which I’ve watched films since I started this project. It is a lo-fi, three-minute clip made up of still images, live and found sound.

(There are, in fact, just over a hundred screens in this cut – but there are also a couple of screens on which I didn’t actually watch a film, so it cancels out). I am in the process of putting all these screenings into the map, so in due course you will be able to see basic information about all of these. For now, the video intends to be playful rather than informative. I made it using only open-source software (GIMP, Blender and Audacity), in a couple of days, on my parents’ computer. Hopefully later I will be able to make a longer, more argument-driven video-essay.

When I started this project I thought about how I would document my scattered, relatively informal fieldwork. Apart from reading a lot about field notes, and accumulating guilt for never writing them up on time, I also pondered audio-visual documentation. I read Tricia Wang’s article on ‘live ethnography‘, where she discussed her multiple forms of data collection on the field. I am not connected enough to do this ‘live’ (that is, I don’t use a smartphone, yet), but I recognise her desire to “ease myself into a fieldsite through the very act of documenting and sharing my documentation”. I also found that, at the very least, a picture would have a date stamp and jog my memory when my notes scribbled in the dark were too confusing.

I attend and document public events, where photography is allowed. But even when this is the assumption, I decided I would avoid taking pictures where individuals are recognisable. In most cases, it would not be practicable to request permission from everybody present, and obtaining permission from an event gatekeeper would not discount the fact that some people might prefer not to be on display. Taking pictures of the space, perhaps with the back of people’s heads, was sufficient for my purpose. Most events have their own photographers or Facebook albums, which usually do a better job of capturing audience reactions than I could. I focused instead on the less photogenic things, such as the projector, the blackout curtains, and – as above – the screens. I have also experimented with sound recordings, as heard in the first half of the video. While I find the stereo ambient recordings very evocative and useful to recreate a situation, I am not that sure about sharing them. The stereo recorder is a stealthy piece of kit, and it is more likely to capture conversations without the subjects – or myself – noticing. It may be that I restrict its use to situations in which I am able to obtain informed consent directly, although it would be a shame to give up the vivid atmosphere of ‘crowd effects’.

In the video I mix live sound with archive sound from three sources. Movieman is a documentary about James Nairn, a pioneer film exhibitor and filmmaker, in which he talks about some of the first venues at which he worked in the 1920s, including the Savoy Cinema in Edinburgh. From British Pathé News I got some notes on the tripling of the ABC cinema (also in Edinburgh) in 1969. And I used a 1936 Hitchcock film, Sabotage, which opens with a scene of a power cut at a movie theatre (and the complaint: “If I wanted to sit in the dark, I could do it at home – free of charge”).

These archive sounds are meant to work in counterpoint to the images, by evoking the heyday of theatrical exhibition. James Nairn’s recollection of a cinema which was a converted shooting gallery is a reminder that the permanent, purpose-build cinema didn’t appear out of nothing, but through adaptations and appropriations. The hype about the ‘three screens under one roof’ at Edinburgh’s ABC points to another moment of change in commercial exhibition. My first cut of this video had used the soundtracks from various cinema demolition videos, playing with the idea of this explosion of screens rising from the ashes of the old. But the sounds were not only unpleasant and incomprehensible; their intended meaning perhaps played too much into a narrative of decline that ignores the constant reinvention of public film exhibition since it began.

I was editing this video at the same time as I put together an abstract for the Alphaville conference, which uses #CinemaIsDead as its provocation. As the call for papers makes clear, for every critic that laments cinema’s abandonment of their particular definition of the word, there is someone creating a new definition that makes sense to them, now – or retracing a historical path-less-travelled.

In their introduction to The State of Post-Cinema, Malte Hagener, Vinzenz Hediger and Alena Strohmaier tackle this discourse of crisis, situating it in relation to “cinema” as an art form distinguished by its indexical relationship to reality, and “cinema” as a dispositive. In the current situation, they argue, we need to find ways to understand and talk about cinema without remaining bound by that “specific, contingent configuration known as “cinema”” (2016: 4). If that sounds ambiguous, the chapters in the book demonstrate the concreteness of the discussion: from pirate networks to livecast opera to Jafar Panahi’s This is not a Film (2011), moving images keep being created, circulated, and viewed with little concern for ontological definitions and theoretical boundaries. But if the idea of “cinema” seems infinitely malleable, “a cinema” seems much easier to describe.

I’ve also been reading Gabriele Pedullà’s 2012 book In Broad Daylight, which argues that the movie theatre in the twentieth century was “a steely modernist device”, a technology that enforced forms of audience behaviour to encourage concentration on the film. Taking a leaf out of art historians’ examination of the gallery as aesthetic device (the ‘white cube’), Pedullà describes the assumed classical auditorium as a ‘dark cube’ which imposes a certain ‘viewing style’ (p. 25-27). It is this viewing style that seems to have lost its primacy. But if it was, as Pedullà argues with unwarranted certainty, an imposition from above, a disciplining of the public to submit to the wishes of filmmakers, then the dethroning of this viewing style is a moment of possibility, like that of early cinema before its theatricalisation became dominant. And by dethroning I don’t mean disappearance, but rather a recognition of the movie theatre’s contingent relationship to film experience.

Of the hundred screenings in my video, only a few took place in fully darkened, soundproofed spaces. But that doesn’t mean that the expectations associated with the ‘dark cube’ automatically fall away outwith the purpose-built cinema. The screen is in front (even if it’s just a wall). The audience is watching. Around those basic facts, these images show all sorts of negotiations, using and subverting the ever-shifting definitions of cinema.

Ruth Mills performing in Jennifer West's installation at Tramway, September 2016

Wish you were here

I spent the summer chasing cinema. By ferry, train, bus, car, or bike I’ve travelled to places I had never been before, to catch brief spells of light on temporary screens. I started typing this on a boat heading for Zeebrugge, shortly before entering the on-board cinema to watch a Hollywood blockbuster I had missed. I come back to the text almost two months later, after fifteen minutes of wonder in an installation by American artist Jennifer West. In the vast warehouse space of the old tram depot, in complete darkness, Ruth Mills performed the serpentine dance, illuminated by handheld torches shining through strips of celluloid. The familiar rows of sprocket holes and the soft colours of tinted film moved and merged on the walls, as the audience wandered around, shining their torches closer or further away, playing with a magically simple form of projection. A beam of light and shadow, a wall, darkness, and someone watching: I’ve seen this alchemy over and over, and it is never the same twice.

The Screen Machine at Kyleakin

The Screen Machine at Kyleakin

The warm glow of the cinema at the Burnlaw Centre

The warm glow of the cinema at the Burnlaw Centre

At the beginning of the summer, I followed the Screen Machine to Skye and Raasay, where the familiar space of a cinema on wheels offered the comforts that the Scottish weather denies to campers. After a couple of days away from the city, the Icelandic moors with their hardy sheep in Rams fused in my memory with their Highland equals. In rural Northumberland I watched Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, its affectionate humanism made vastly more resonant by the communal meals we shared between its three parts, the togetherness of collective spectatorship nurtured by the warmth of hospitality from our hosts at the Burnlaw Centre. In the last part of Gomes’s extraordinary trilogy, there is a long documentary segment about rugged Lisbon men who breed and train chaffinches for singing tournaments. As the film taught us how to identify the parts of a bird’s song, we realised the chaffinches we heard were also outside the window. Thanks to that random juxtaposition, I now know what a chaffinch sounds like; I apprehend a little bit more of the world. A similar modest discovery took place in an old United Presbyterian Church off the Gallowgate, where a short film about doo fleein’ finally explained to me what those structures I had always seen by the canal were, and illuminated a new corner of my life in the city.

Screens and drums at Hidden Door festival, Edinburgh, June 2016

Screens and drums at Hidden Door festival, Edinburgh, June 2016

Wee Green Cinema, Pollokshields Playhouse, July 2016

Wee Green Cinema, Pollokshields Playhouse, July 2016

Cinema this summer engaged my body as well as my attention. In a small, pitch-black room in an electrical warehouse in Edinburgh, I made the palms of my hands tender through drumming, using my skin on skin to learn, to listen to the stories of Afro-Colombian struggles for freedom, told through beat and song in Diana Kuellar’s video installation Benkos. I cycled the two beautiful miles from Gorebridge to Temple Village Hall, where the pleasure of uncomplicated, friendly cinemagoing was augmented by homemade lemon drizzle cake. I also cycled to the temporarily reclaimed space of the Pollokshields Playhouse, in the Southside of Glasgow, and then cycled some more to resistance and solidarity, and a glimmer of hope that we will still have cinema after the coming catastrophe. Hope was also there in the relaxed intimacy of a yurt full of children and child-like adults, talking back to the films and to each other’s explanations of them, during CineMor77’s appearance at Doune the Rabbit Hole.

Temple, Midlothian

Temple, Midlothian

Mairi (1912) gets the live treatment at Cinemor77's yurt, August 2016

Mairi (1912) gets the live treatment at Cinemor77’s yurt, August 2016

This summer I had the amazing privilege to go chasing a will o’ the wisp as it flickered here and there, with little more justification than my curiosity. I was able and allowed to do this, and I hope this will only make me more awake to all the barriers that I didn’t even see, that I glibly skipped over, or that others held open for me – not to trick me into misplaced guilt, but to spur me to share this luck. Read this, if you will, as my excuse for telling you about the nice things I’ve seen, the kindness that survives, the simple joys that could be ours.

Live lassoing at Glasgow Film Festival's screening of Thelma and Louise

Live a little

Last week started and ended thinking about liveness and cinema. At Stirling, the symposium on Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound traced the gradual fracture of the link between live music and the moving image; then, in London, the Live Cinema conference traced its re-emergence. The histories are, of course, much less linear than this curve suggests. The Live Cinema conference marked the launch of a report on the state of ‘live cinema’ in the UK, based on research conducted over the past year (with last summer snappily identified as ‘the summer of live’), and a themed section in the current issue of Participations bringing together a series of case studies around ‘secret cinema’. The Illuminations blog has a perceptive blow-by-blow account of the day, with reflections that resonate with my argument here.

Back at Stirling, Trevor Griffiths showed how the Musicians’ Union membership had shrunk dramatically at the turn of the sound era, as cinema musicians everywhere lost their jobs; now, according to the report, film exhibition is a growing source of employment for some musicians, engaged to create and perform music for silent and classic films. Stephen Horne offered an astonishing demonstration at Stirling with his live piano accompaniment to A cottage in Dartmoor (1929), which amplified the film’s gut-wrenching emotional power, its vanguardist montage and meticulous cinematography. The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema has made a name for itself as a commissioner of new scores and prime location for silent film music. However, the report also suggests that some of the exhibitors that put on silent film with live music are hesitant to be brought under the banner of ‘live cinema’.

Here we come to the matter of definitions, which was at the heart of the discussion during the conference at King’s College. One of the aims of the Live Cinema in the UK report is ‘creating a common definition’. But common to what? Throughout the conference, different people had different visions of what the term meant, or whether a term was needed at all. That the proposed moniker refers to the concept of ‘liveness’ further complicates things. The romantic associations of liveness critiqued by Philip Auslander (magic, energy, authenticity, community) keep appearing in exhibitors’ discourse.

“Live performance […] has become the means by which mediatized representations are naturalized, according to a simple logic that appeals to our nostalgia for what we assumed was the im-mediate: if the mediatized image can be recreated in a live setting, it must have been “real” to begin with”. (Auslander, Liveness, p. 54)

From a media theory standpoint, we’ve been here before and had this conversation already, though it is by no means a closed case. What was more interesting about the panels was the evidence of how ‘live’ works as a marketing category. While some academic participants felt there could have been more reflection, the conference offered a privileged opportunity to hear about how the idea of ‘live’ is being mobilised in relation to screening events by a growing industry.

One key distinction that the report, and the conference, alternatively drew and blurred, is that between the terms ‘Live Cinema’ and ‘Event Cinema’. This is in part because there is already an Event Cinema Association, and they have positioned that term in replacement of the too-vague ‘alternative content’ to mean, essentially, livecasting: the presentation in cinema venues of live transmissions of events. Siding with Rick Altman and many other exhibition/audience scholars, I would say ‘event cinema’ is tautological, as any instantiation of cinema takes place somewhere, sometime, and is therefore an event. Pedantry aside, however, I take more issue with the notion that this is ‘cinema’ because it takes place in a cinema auditorium. The medium is, plainly, television. And the mode of spectatorship and context of performance, according to Martin Barker’s research, are completely different from those associated with film. For instance, livecast opera audiences, according to Barker, book their tickets differently, interact differently with the front of house, and expect people to be quiet and not munching popcorn. People attending a big-screen transmission of a football match will behave more like they would at a stadium than at a movie, and so on. The cinema-ness is decentred from the cinema space; as Barker said, these opera audiences feel they’ve ‘reclaimed’ the cinema space.

But for the sake of argument let’s let livecasts be called Event Cinema, and take that out of the equation when we talk about the other stuff. In the report, the researchers advance a definition of Live Cinema as “a film screening utilising additional performance or interactivity inspired by the content of the film.” (p. 4) This is an odd definition because it only mentions two of the three categories that Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy have also outlined in their introduction to the Participations dossier. This is a very useful opening contribution to a research field that is only getting established, and as such I have some respectful disagreements with this taxonomy. The ‘participatory’ category is fairly self-explanatory, including singalongs, cosplay, and dancing, for instance. The ‘augmented’ category covers live or mediated performances, or exhibition contexts, that ‘add a further dimension to the filmic text’ (live music being an example). But then there’s the seemingly more modest ‘enhanced’ category, in which ‘the physical experience is enhanced but this is not relative to the story of the film’ (p. 141). Outdoor screenings are given as an example, but more often than not these are arranged with some attention to the film content. A question emerges later over whether Q&As are to be considered Live Cinema (I don’t think so). As Atkinson and Kennedy point out, theirs is a pioneering incursion into the field, and their taxonomies are meant to be tested and refined. At the moment, they perhaps try to account for too much diversity, in order to justify the inclusion of such disparate experiences in the strange agglomeration of Live Cinema.

So we come back to the question of definition. Over on Twitter, the Events Cinema Association, who are anxious about the proliferation of terms, claimed that labels are not important for audiences (while defending theirs…)

Indeed, the relatively small surveys conducted for the report show general confusion or vagueness between both exhibitors and audiences about the term ‘Live Cinema’, but then concluded that this could be resolved by educating the audience, “informing them that live cinema is a unique brand proposition”. (p. 17). And this is a crucial insight.

Responding to repeated claims for the novelty of participatory screenings, Matt Jones reminded the panel that none of this is actually new. Atkinson and Kennedy fully acknowledge this, citing ‘expanded cinema, happenings, ballyhoo’ amongst the genealogies of the phenomena they study (p. 148). What seems to have changed is, on the one hand, the commercialisation of previously marginal practices (non-theatrical exhibition, fan/cult expression), and on the other, the centering of previously ancillary promotional practices: Ballyhoo as core experience, served up by dedicated producers. The preoccupation with terminology is understandable, because, as quoted above, the term Live Cinema is intended as branding. Branding, in this case, creates differentiation and manages audience expectations, as well as helping justify increased ticket prices. As Auslander says in relation to 1990s ‘interactive theatre’,

“the ostensible evanescence and nonrepeatibility of the live experience ironically become selling points to promote a product that must be fundamentally the same in each of its instantiations” (Liveness, p. 61).

If I was asked to come up with a marketing term, however, I would propose ‘extraordinary’ or simply ‘special screenings’ (Glasgow Film Festival brands its strand simply as ‘Special Events’). Liveness is not their essence; liveness is sometimes their method, a way to create artificial scarcity in a market in which consumers are supposed to have instant access to everything everywhere all the time. Site-specificity is another way to make a screening special, and it is not covered by ‘liveness’. It is important that the events in question are ephemeral and not easily scalable; they must be exclusive in some sense, and the audience must believe their experiences are unique.

These audiences are courted and placated, engaged and reassured, allowing them to enjoy the thrills of riskless discovery. Precisely a month after the Radical Film Network weekend, this narrow devotion to pleasure and ‘fun’ rang a bit hollow. This is confirmed by the statistics included in the report, which, although preliminary, are informative. There are no indicators of socio-economic status, but 100% of the people surveyed at live cinema events claimed to be ‘frequent cultural events attendees’. When asked whether the market might have reached saturation point, panellists rejected the idea, claiming that ‘people want options’. This foregrounding of choice and consumer ‘power’ (somewhat reminiscent of the more sinister Higher Education White Paper released this month) is part of the positioning of this sector as a commercial alternative to the multiplex. More often than not, this is a choice of distinction, in the Bourdieusian sense. The motivation for ever more inventive ways to capture our overstretched attention seems to be to capture premium customers, those privileged enough to be bored of the multiplex. Interesting tropes of controlled playfulness, connected to gaming, also inform the sector’s ideology of ‘fun’, as Atkinson and Kennedy have shown elsewhere.

The attention economy is cut-throat, and there is a huge amount of creativity and hard work going into the planning of very complex ‘total artworks’. Some event producers are thriving, and good luck to them; some are surviving, most are still doing and depending on lots of unpaid labour. Commercial viability has been achieved by adopting mass-media/bourgeois aesthetics: nostalgia, novelty, lack of dissonance, comfort, etc. As the Radical Film Network attests, a critical underground continues to pose a DIY alternative to this appropriation, but it is also often subsumed in the seemingly apolitical variety of cultural consumption. The mainstreaming of non-theatrical, participatory forms, in particular, makes them available to a broader audience, but erodes their oppositional potential. The degree to which there is indeed an oppositional potential in any of these phenomena (whether mass-mediatic or not) depends on the extent of your cultural pessimism, but I remain unconvinced that ‘more stuff’ is necessarily the best use of our energies. Then again, I would say that. Discuss…

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Cinema as occupation

This month started with a memorable couple of days racing around Glasgow to try and catch glimpses of the Radical Film Network festival and unconference. There was a lot on, and incredible variety, as many local groups and individuals organised screenings and events autonomously. We will be talking about it for months, but I wanted to try and start organising some thoughts emerging from some of the conversations that took place that weekend at the unconference, and from the unconference itself as a form of organising.

Chelsea facilitating the scheduling of unconference sessions

Chelsea facilitating the scheduling of unconference sessions

Many of the people who came to the unconference from outside Glasgow show films in places that are not cinemas (and some have started their own cinemas). Most of the screenings during the festival also took place in spaces that are not normally used for film exhibition. Although the RFN Scotland organising group deliberately avoided policing definitions of what’s radical (a point that keeps coming up for discussion in the broader context of the Network), a tacit alignment to the left was evident. The RFN’s website talks of “film culture for a fair, just and sustainable society”, which is obviously a pretty broad church. In practice, in the context of film exhibition at this particular juncture, this meant mainly non-commercial and/or underground practices.

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The events throughout the May Day weekend, like with most socially-engaged forms of film exhibition, had something in common: they used film to bring people to a place, in the hopes that a meaningful engagement would happen, that conversations would start. But just as often, it was the place itself that was an attraction, and the film screening was an opportunity to be in a space. Under the pretence of watching films we get to sit in a shop in the Barras market, the ruin of a church, a women’s housing co-op, or under the railway arches. Entering these temporary venues while thinking politically left me with some questions regarding film exhibition as a radical tactic.

Popular struggles have a long history of using physical presence in and control of a space as an effective form of pressure, but most importantly as a form of direct action (such as in factory work-ins and free universities).  The college sit-in and the landless farmers‘ unauthorised tilling are both forms of reclaiming a space and transforming it into the kind of space that is needed. Doreen Massey said of Occupy London that  it was “a real creation of a space of the kind that we need a lot more of. A space that brings us together to talk and to argue about the kind of future world we want”. At one of the unconference panels someone mentioned Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a “free enclave […], a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” I will park the question of whether Occupy camps or other specific occupations are to be considered TAZs or not; it is the notion of ‘liberating an area’ that matters. In their reflection on film and resistance against the capitalist appropriation of urban space, Geraldine Pratt and Rose Marie San Juan argue that cinema can work as “a temporary suspension from everyday life, in which new relations can come into being” (2014, p. 176)

So in what ways is the event of cinema like an occupation?

There might be similar logistics: a need to provide creature comforts, whether that means central heating or open fire, plush seats or stacked pallets, a cocktail bar or a communal pot of soup. Conditions must be created that allow people to stay – and these obviously depend on how long people are planning to stay. This is particularly the case when the place under occupation is not one meant for living/for cinema: a factory, a city square, a university lobby. But just as important as the material conditions, the space has to be reinvented socially; it acquires new function and new meaning, and therefore new ways of behaving in it need to emerge. In a screening, the film is the backbone that makes the event understandable from the outside, imaginable, legitimate, even fundable. Getting together to watch a film makes sense to a lot of people; going to an odd place to meet with strangers and have an unplanned conversation, not so much (although if you frame it as an unconference it might even work!).

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Moving Parts and Revolutions

One of the challenges of inventing new spaces, especially liberated spaces or spaces for liberation, is that of finding ways to be together that are not mediated by institutional law and policing. The topic of safer spaces came up during the Community Cinemas roundtable towards the end of the festival. Do temporary cinema spaces need safer spaces policies to be upheld for their duration, alongside or replacing the tacit or explicit rules of the venue? With or without such policies, can organisers contribute to make these spaces more accessible and more radical than ‘standard’ cinemas by communicating a kind of ‘vibe’? An interesting idea that came up (from Liverpool’s Small Cinema, if I remember correctly) was to tell the story of the cinema, perhaps in the form of a short trailer before the movie, helping build the trust and sense of investment that can make the audience feel like a fleeting community.

But often the cinema isn’t at all like an occupation. To begin with, its presence in space is, for the most part, not oppositional in itself; it is allowed by the usual controllers of the space, often invited, in celebration rather than protest. (I need to write much more about Cinema Up‘s endlessly thought-provoking Radical Home Cinema programme, but that’s for later.) It is also important not to lose sight of the distinctiveness of cinema as aesthetic experience. It is still at a remove from life, and so it opens up opportunities for introspection and wonder that are often missing in the collective busyness of activism. In foregrounding film’s ability to congregate people, it is easy to forget the power of individual experience (especially when it takes place in public). As Pratt and San Juan hope, cinema can create “an actual concrete space.

Not just as a space to gather information but as a space of fantasy, imagination, affect, and bodily reverberation and resonance. Not just as a space of individual reflection but as a space of sociality and discussion.” (p. 176)

At the same time, the non-committed relationship that is established in the temporary community of the viewing audience is very different to the long-term solidarity required to sustain radical social action, or simply to survive oppression. So perhaps the parallels don’t stretch too far – but they might still offer useful sightlines to bring the political back into thinking the cinema space.

References:

Pratt, Geraldine and Rose Marie San Juan (2014) Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

 

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Secrets, spectacles, suspicions

I’ve been thinking about Secret Cinema a lot this week. I used their short video of the Back to the Future screening in two lectures: First, in relation to Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy’s work on the performative and gaming-inflected practices of SC audiences (and their pitfalls); and second, as part of a discussion about the way ‘pop-up’ cinema is so strongly associated with particular London happenings. In both cases, as the students watched the pyrotechnics and synchronised stunts in awe, I was once again transfixed by the spectacle (ok, also by the brief glimpse of a bearded Jarvis Cocker). The amount of preparation and precision, the commitment of the participants to dress codes and choreographed behaviours, the sheer scale of the thing are hugely impressive, especially when cut in the style of a music video to great tunes and presumably blending together the best bits over several runs of the event.
The massive, spectacular nature of Secret Cinema, its steep ticket prices, and its move from underground-ish to premium release window for films like Prometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel have made it an obvious flashpoint for discussions of gentrification, pointing to an entitled relationship to urban space as a playground that obscures very real conflicts. Similar critiques have been directed at many other temporary uses of urban space conforming to a familiar pattern: white, young, relatively privileged entrepreneurs setting up a ‘pop-up’ shop/café/gallery/etc in a bit of the city seen as in need of regeneration, where that ‘regeneration’ implies the displacement of existing communities – either priced out of the area or straight-up evicted when housing states are condemned. (Lots of people have written about this; see for instance the work of Jen Harvie and Ella Harris) Most of these entrepreneurs have good intentions, but the playfulness of the ‘pop-up’ is often bound up with privilege, and always at risk of being co-opted. This year’s Turner Prize winners, the London collective Assemble, are arguably much more committed to grassroots, community engagement (not just the dressing-up-and-dancing-along variety); and yet, their very influential pop-up projects have encountered similar distrust.
Of course people will be suspicious when the posterboys and girls of the ‘creative economy’, whatever that is, suddenly turn up to places they had ignored before. Urban space is rife with tension, as the public becomes privatised and the state curtails its functions to focus on upholding the interests of a corporate elite. Glasgow City Council’s aborted idea of blowing up the Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games showed us just how blatant this spectacularisation of working-class erasure could be. So I was not surprised when I read this morning that a group of Tower Hamlet residents had posted an ‘open letter’ to Secret Cinema, with regards to their forthcoming season of immersive screenings of the zombie film, 28 Days Later. Promotional images had emerged of Ernö Goldfinger’s brutalist masterpiece, the Balfron Tower, which seemed to imply that the Secret Cinema event would take place there or nearby. The Balfron Social Club called this ‘distasteful and inappropriate’, and furthering ‘an aggressive social cleansing agenda that is destroying our communities’.
The blog post was widely retweeted – with increasing levels of outrage, as tends to be the case in recent social media debates.

Only a couple of hours later, the Balfron Social Club reported that they had received a reply from Secret Cinema, which was posted under the original blog entry. This was a brief and informal email explaining that Secret Cinema did not plan to use that location, and that ‘we’ve used images of the tower because it’s a prominent part of the original film, not because it’s the location for our event.’ This seemed to calm things down, and yet what had surfaced was a long-held suspicion that this is the kind of thing they would do.

In short, most people were prepared to believe that ‘Secret Cinema are dickheads (again)‘, and even when the confusion was cleared up, the perception persists. This is partly explained by the very real sense of exclusion produced by £65 tickets. On the other hand, there is growing weariness with and suspicion of pop-up everything. The rather uninformed idealism that propelled the start of the pop-up trend is being replaced with cynicism. A critical eye on all and any appropriations of public and community spaces is healthy, no doubt. But it is also dangerous to reject anything that looks like spectacle, or like fun, because it won’t address structural injustice: If I can’t dance, etc. Amongst all the scripting and rules and fireworks, there is a playfulness in lots of pop-up stuff that shouldn’t be ignored. We can have the playfulness without the sense of entitlement, can’t we?

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Two festivals and their venues

This blog post is based on a presentation I gave at Besides the Screen at the end of November (see my previous post, Rituals of Cinema). This, the very first public appearance of my current research project, talked about two events I attended during the first month of the project, and about how they had started to shape new questions. The two events were Scalarama and the Southside Film Festival. I chose to compare them because both events position themselves very explicitly as a response to a lack or a loss of more institutional sites of exhibition (by which I mean full-time cinemas and arts centres). Since the theme of the conference was Methods and Materials of Curatorship, I was interested in how this response is connected with programming strategies that have their own logic. These observations were made in the early days of my research, and as I have not had direct contact with the organisers, they depend only on publicly available information.

My first example was the Scottish part of Scalarama (dubbed ‘Scaledonia’). Scalarama, briefly, is a season of film events loosely associated and supported which runs throughout September in many parts of the United Kingdom and beyond. It started in 2011 as a tribute to the Scala cinema in London, a repertory cinema with a cult following (Jane Giles is currently writing a book about the venue, which I look forward to reading). Its organisation is decentralised, as anyone who wants to have activities included in the programme is only asked to submit a declaration of principles.

Scalarama’s own manifesto starts with the demand to “fill the land with cinemas”, using their own minimal definition of cinema: wherever there is a film and an audience, there is cinema. Suggested location types include pubs and boats, and certainly all those kinds of spaces have been used for Scalarama-related events. You could think it ironic that a homage to an actual cinema should look for its place away from the cinema space; in that case, it might be reassuring that this year’s programme has such a high proportion of permanent cinema spaces as venues for Scalarama.

A classification of the 311 events mapped on the Scalarama website for this year shows that over two thirds of the screenings took place in cinemas, theatres, art centres or galleries; that is, in spaces that already have some form of institutional relationship with cinema. The other spaces mainly include bars and pubs, gardens, and community projects. The variety and quirkiness of the venues is perhaps less prominent this year that it has been previously, which might be a trend worth following. A more detailed look shows further patterns.

Some of the Scaledonia venues
Some of the Scaledonia venues

 

In Scotland, exhibitors taking part in Scalarama organised autonomously, calling their part of the festival ‘Scaledonia’. There were numerically more events in Scotland this year than in previous editions, but only nine venues. Two of these are arthouse cinemas: the Edinburgh Film House and the Glasgow Film Theatre, two are independent cinemas, the Grosvenor and the Birks, and two of them are arts centres. It is this latter category that covers more events and distorts the picture somehow.

This is because the Scalarama programme includes 27 screenings by SQIFF, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, which ran for the first time this year. This collaboration is, to an extent, simply a consequence of both SQIFF and Scalarama happening at the same time, but it also meant that SQIFF could access Scalarama programming strands like the Shirley Clarke catalogue. Most of the SQIFF screenings take place at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, which has become a convergence point for culture industry workers of different types, and the main site for non-profit film festivals in Glasgow. This is an interesting development, which speaks of a rather close relationship between the film and the art scene which is not entirely surprising in such a small milieu. It does however complicate the structuring distinctions of the field.

In her book Film Cultures (2002), Janet Harbord outlined the arthouse cinema and the gallery as two distinct sites for contemporary film exhibition, with their own embodied expectations. The proliferation of arts centres with dedicated screening facilities alongside gallery space, shops, cafes, and office and workshop space is as much a staple of contemporary urban culture as the flashy art galleries. Amongst this trend, the CCA is perhaps a slightly more politicised space, retaining some of its radical roots from when it started as the Third Eye Centre. Its centrality to Glasgow’s film culture has a parallel role to the more cinephiliac, middlebrow position of the Glasgow Film Theatre, only a few blocks away.

But what about the other Scaledonia venues? Three examples allow us to identify different curatorial strategies in operation.

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First we have a community cinema in a village hall, in Dunlop which is a village just outside Glasgow. The Community Cinema is supported by Cinema For All (British Federation of Film Societies) and Film Hub Scotland. So this is a regular provision with institutional support. As part of the BFI Film Audience network, locations like this one are the prime target for the curated seasons that the British Film Institute puts together. That constitutes the core of their regular programming. Through these networks, the volunteer-run (but very professional) cinema has access to curatorial expertise and practical support in dealing with distributors. The Dunlop Community Cinema also organise event screenings, such a tea dance to go with the re-release of Brief Encounter, and a Northern Soul night to go with the recently released film of that title. Their base at a multi-purpose hall with a licensed café is helpful, as the chairs can easily be put away for dancing and there is a proscenium stage for performances or presentations.

For Scalarama, Dunlop showed the 2012 film Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta), which linked the programme to the Directed By Women fortnight. Directed By Women is a campaign to encourage exhibitors to show films directed by women during the first two weeks of September, as a ‘worldwide viewing party’. This temporal overlap resulted in a collaboration with Scalarama, who launched ‘Project 51’ as an initiative with the aim of achieving gender equality in exhibition. Hannah Arendt was not, however, one of the core films offered by Scalarama, and even though it is a mainstream biopic, it was a surprising choice for a Saturday evening show, as it is a very discursive meditation on ethics and theory, and large parts of it are in German. It was also very different from other Scalarama-promoted films, as it is neither a cult movie or a nostalgic mainstream movie. This suggests that the association with Scalarama was contingent on the association with the Directed By Women. The volunteers were surprised that their cinema was featured in a national newspaper article about Scalarama, mentioned in the same sentence as the urban arthouse cinemas that seem as a world apart.

Closer to the Scalarama ethos was the screening of the Japanese film House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) organised by Matchbox Cineclub. This was run at the cine-club’s usual place, a bar in Glasgow city centre which has an upstairs room for music gigs, exhibitions, and a wide variety of weird stuff. The screening was on Matchbox’s usual monthly date. Matchbox have been running cult cinema screenings for several years, and this film was not out of character. It was known to the programmers, who have extensive expertise. The film has recently been released on DVD by Eureka, which is one of the distributors working in partnership with Scalarama. So while the Cineclub could have programmed the film at some point anyway, the Scalarama connection facilitated the process.

Finally, the #PeoplePower double bill was an initiative of the Radical Film Network that programmed the same two short documentaries about British activists, on the same date in different places around the UK. The Scalarama programme proposed,

“6 double-bill screenings of A Time Comes (2009) and McLibel (2005) happening up-and-down the country. The events aim to unite individuals within the screening space and foster dialogues of what we can do as individuals and as collective to effect change.”

The overlap of these two networks – Radical Film Network and Scalarama – introduces a politicised programming strand branching off the cult aspect. The Glasgow screening was organised by Document Human Rights Film Festival, who are local members of the Radical Film Network – so this thematic shift connects another organisation to the Scalarama scheme. This was a more purely one-off event, at a space with a history of activism. The Govanhill Baths is a public swimming pool that was closed and then occupied by the community. Several community groups and projects are run from its spare rooms. On the day of the screening, the venue had been awarded funding to restore and reopen the swimming pool, so there was a sense of victory. During the screening there was a collection for striking workers at the National Galleries and a solidarity group photo was sent.

These three examples, thus, engage with modes of practice that come from different traditions: the village hall cinema, the cult movie cine-club, and the activist screening. This draws attention to the very fluid convergence of cinematic practices made visible by something like Scalarama, which started as a celebration of a very specific type of cinema experience.

The Southside Film Festival in Glasgow is also, like Scalarama, referencing a loss, but it is a very different beast. This is a much smaller event, offering about two dozen screenings and several workshops over a weekend, and explicitly positioned in relation to a local history of cinema.

Some of the Southside Film Festival venues
Some of the Southside Film Festival venues

The 2015 brochure opened with this text:

“Southside Film Festival started in 2011 as a response to the lack of a local cinema or film screenings in the Southside of Glasgow. Four years later the festival reflects on the continued lack of a local cinema with the theme of cinema heritage and film archive.”

In this case, the pop-up strategy is not necessarily valorised in itself; it is presented as a response to a lack. In practice, however, there is a lot of creativity and pleasure in programming in unexpected spaces. This is a site-specific film festival; the choice of films responds to the choice of venues and the ancillary events available at these locations. So for instance pairing films with food, or using the Wurlitzer organ at the local town hall to accompany silent movies. This year the emphasis on history and archives was articulated through an exhibition about the old cinemas of the Southside, and an open call for home movies which were digitised and edited into short films and shown on the opening night.

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But for all that the festival is so explicitly invested in history, the old cinemas that still stand in the area are yet to be reclaimed for it. The exception is the large Pollokshaws Burgh hall. Here we have an example of a building that has hosted cinema for more than a hundred years without ever becoming a cinema. These histories about what, where, and when cinema is, and where it has been, continue to shape where cinema’s going, even through the apparently novel forms of exhibition practice. Over the next three years I hope to throw away these preliminary ideas several times over, and to make the acquaintance of many of those making cinema happen in every corner of Scotland. If you’re one of them – I’d love to meet you!

Conversatorio en La Chinca

Watching and hoping

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Colombia is a hopeful country. Against our best instincts, after nothing but catastrophic disappointments and broken promises, people hope that the current peace process will come to something. This is not naive hope – even in the best possible scenario, the current agreement will only address one aspect (and one actor) in our historical clusterfuck. But there is no other option. It is either trying again or accepting that the world’s oldest ongoing conflict is a permanent feature. Even those who want to continue the war sell their militaristic programme on the basis of hope: for security and growth.

In Colombia people think about identities. Not just academics either; concepts from critical theory (‘the other’, ‘symbolic violence’) permeate journalistic and political discourse. This much attention given to cultural or ideological categories in a country with so much material inequality and physical violence may seem surprising. And yet, in 2015 Colombian film production hit a record high of 36 feature releases, while around 80 film festivals are active. This is an unprecedented scenario, and the hopes are also high. It is therefore an interesting moment for me to go back to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a festival I had not been to in almost a decade. Much has changed.

On the year the Festival started, 2000, only four Colombian films had been released, and there was no structure for state support of film production, after the collapse of the previous awards and tax credits system. A critic remarked that year on “the precariousness of our environment and the effective lack of a national film industry”.1 In 2015, the festival starts with a morning meeting of the National Cinematography Council, a body that includes representatives from all branches of the trade (except, as a vehement student noted, the universities). It was set up to oversee the execution of the 2003 Film Law, which established a tax on exhibition, distribution and production to be reinvested in the making and promotion of Colombian films. Nowadays, most Colombian films receive some support from this fund, as well as using other tax incentives for national and international production. Festivals like this one also apply for these public funds, in combination with an intricate mix of in-kind or cash support (the programme lists over 20 supporters, plus a dozen media partners and a longer list of local businesses).

Santa Fe de Antioquia, 2000

An image from the first Santa Fe de Antioquia Film and Video Festival, in 2000. Taken from Kinetoscopio.

While this ensures a professional organisation and smooth delivery, this festival is not aiming to compete with Cannes. It doesn’t have the same purpose. The aforementioned critic also described the event as “after all, a provincial festival”. This is still true, though the festival’s sense of locality has changed. Initially the explicit purpose of the festival was to reinvigorate film culture in a town that did not have a cinema. There was a focus on engaging the local audience, not only as spectators but also as budding filmmakers. The festival’s relationship with the municipality and schools is still strong, and many locals do attend. However, the audience has changed since the start of the festival, due to the increase of tourism in the region, and the nurturing of an audiovisually inclined milieu in the many Media and Communications university programmes in the nearest city, Medellin.

Located in the valley of River Cauca, some 35 miles north-west from Medellin, Santa Fe de Antioquia has long been a tourist town, due to its hot, dry weather and colonial architecture. However, since the opening in 2006 of a new tunnel that shortened the travel time from Medellin in half, Santa Fe’s appeal has increased considerably. Wealthy Medellin couples choose it for picturesque weddings, thrill-seekers find a variety of lightly regulated adventure sports, and the less well-off visit on day trips by motorbike or bus. The festival’s own crowd, however, is mostly students, who come as much for the parties as for the films. Many of them are more interested in making films than in watching them, or at least watching them while sober. I don’t know why, but many people here really want to make films, and the festival has found ways to show their work to an audience mostly of peers. The talks, panels and workshops take a practical angle, from independent film production to film acting and 3D animation. There are also a number of open-air panel discussions with filmmakers and actors, a festival tradition. The presence of well-known actors (likely to be familiar to the audience through their work on television) continues to create popular interest in the academic programme.

Throughout the day, the programme of screenings, talks and workshops is spread around various indoor spaces in the town, through agreements with the municipal theatre, the Chambers of Commerce, the state university, and other public and private entities that have appropriate venues. The free-of-cost and unticketed nature of most events is in the festival’s ethos, but it creates a variety of logistical problems. During the day, the small spaces available are not enough to accommodate the demand; people were turned away from many of the screenings I attended. Many film festivals wished they had this problem – keen audiences for films that are not necessarily brand new or exclusive. Screenings of shorts by young and emerging filmmakers are also full to capacity.

Open-air screenings start at about 6.30 or 7pm, after the sun has set, and face other issues. The presenters introducing each screening explain their censorship rating and try to persuade parents to take home their children if the film has more adult content, like the lyrically sexual Cheatin’ (Plympton, 2013) which opened the festival. In any case, there are plenty of unaccompanied minors who are unlikely to heed the advice. The efficacy of the four walls and single entrance of a cinema as a device for exclusion is obvious by comparison.

Light pollution affects projection quality, but the audience is patient

Light pollution affects projection quality, but the audience is patient

Walls are also rather good at keeping light and noise out, and a tourist town on a busy weekend is definitely not a quiet place. The light from street lamps and shops makes the darkest parts of a dark movie, Violencia, completely undecipherable. The three quiet, naturalistic, devastating stories distil the tragedies and dignity of thousands of victims and survivors, and commit them to memory. They deserve better than competing for attention with the party music blaring from the corner of the park, or the tuk-tuks racing down the cobbled streets. And yet, it was important to have this film there, and La Tierra y la Sombra on the following night. This town has its own history of violence, and the watchful eye of the paramilitaries is still an unspoken presence in these colonial squares.

Panel discussion at Jesus Nazareno square

Panel discussion at Jesus Nazareno square

On Saturday evening, people are leaving mass at the Nazarene church, and in the cosy, secluded square outside it, a conversation follows two shorts. Like other events in the festival, the panel includes film actors and the director of Violencia. But the event is organised by the National Agency for Reintegration (ACR) and the International Organisation for Migration, and one of the other participants is a demobilised guerrilla combatant. As she speaks plainly of how hard it has been to work alongside the people she once fought, I fear for her. Some of her old enemies may still be circling around on their motorbikes, I think. She is brave, and speaking of peace here is a courageous act, and peace is going to take a lot of courage.

Trailer for Jorge Forero’s Violencia:

 


1Braulio Uribe, “I Festival de Cine y Video de Santa Fe de Antioquia: Pueblito de mis cuitas”, Kinetoscopio No. 58 (2001), pp. 107-111.


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