Still from In de Tropische Zee / In the Tropical Sea (1914)

Death and the online film festival

One of the first blog posts here was about cinema as ritual, in two senses: as a social practice and as a formal set of actions that may address an abstract or supernatural purpose. The pandemic has brought about a crisis of collective rituals, from the quotidian to the transcendental. This unravelling of common habits has mundane consequences, like losing track of the days of the week, but also profoundly painful ones. At tens of thousands of lonely hospital beds and funerals, the conventions that allow human societies to cope with death and grief are tenuously sustained by video-calls. It is both miraculous and crushing in its banality.

If the most sacred and necessary of rituals are being mediated by online streaming, it is no surprise that everything else, from pub quizzes to orchestras, is streaming somewhere. After a spate of cancellations, film festivals and academic conferences have also now returned as online programmes, and probably stand a better chance of survival than the cinema venues and universities that would have hosted them. For anyone lucky enough to have a computer, an internet connection and a safe home, and who isn’t being forced to risk their lives at work, this situation has generated a surfeit of ‘content’ far beyond the usual limitations of geography and timing. The expanded remote access includes participants that otherwise would have been excluded due to disability or location, and it excludes others who have divergent relationships to technology. I don’t want to enter into a discussion of whether streaming is good or bad, better or worse than cinemagoing or conference panels, as I have no interest in protecting those rituals. I don’t care if they survive; I care deeply about the people who depend on them for a livelihood, but that’s a different issue.

This is not a festival venue

This is not a festival venue

Online access is the consummation of mechanical reproducibility, and as Benjamin argued, the breakdown of uniqueness can demystify the reproduced object and wrench it out of the sphere of ritual. The tension between reproducibility (of the film) and uniqueness (of the event) is constitutive to the existence of film festivals, conceived as a way to ‘eventify’ film. This is being negotiated online in many different ways, as the sector fumbles towards new models that may enable some semblance of survival. Live streaming, time-limited access, and live Q&A sessions are some of the strategies that festivals are using to assert a sense of occasion, which is to say, a ritual time. The first online festival I attended this year was Alchemy, which had live screenings and a very pared down, straightforward interaction centered around brief introductions by programmers and a chat box after the film. As a taste of the new normal, and it had many advantages, such as an international audience and the ability to eat lunch during the screening without bothering others. But it didn’t have the treasure hunt of site-specific screenings around Hawick, the floor-to-ceiling screen in perfect darkness, or the gap between screenings to write notes in a sunlit window, go charity-shopping, or eavesdrop on earnest filmmakers at the café. It’s the ‘in-between bits’ that are missing, as Tara Judah wrote a few days ago. The gaps are backfilled with housework or email, and so the ritual contract is fragmented.

It becomes very difficult for festivals to offer a distinctive experience without their unique locations. In a recent piece, Erika Balsom considers how “presented online, moving-image artworks risk absorption into a ceaseless cascade of undifferentiated “content.””. From behind a laptop screen it all looks pretty much the same, despite the bewildering proliferation of platforms and logins. It is all also a bit more intentional, less random, like most things online which depend on being called up by the consumers, and are therefore less likely to surprise them. The waning of unintentional, unplanned sociability is harder to articulate as a loss in the pandemic, as governments entrench a worldview where the important relationships are those of wage work first, and normative family unit second. Online film viewing is – in my experience – similarly tending towards the productive or the familiar, more fully realised as labour because the stretches of time around it have been minimised. With no travelling to the cinema or waiting in the lobby, there is nowhere online where you can just sit and do nothing, let things unfold that don’t depend on your intervention and choice.

The fantasy of digital availability of everything presents itself as a fugue from mortality. You can’t miss anything – you can always watch it later (I am still genuinely upset about MUBI’s departure from its 30-days-only model, which at least allowed you to move on if you had missed a film). But of course, you don’t have infinite time. You don’t know if you can ever watch it later. Life is literally too short. The life of images can also be shorter than you think, links rotting all over the web, emulsions sliding, nitrate burning. At Alchemy, several films reflected on the failure of the archive to deliver the future promised by the past. In Salma Shamel’s short film, Those That Tremble as if They Were Mad, an inkjet printer sits in a backyard, printing certificates intended to reward contributors of oral testimonies of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. The bureaucratic attempts can’t help but extinguish the same radical fire they intend to record, and soon succumb to the reactionary collapse of the popular uprising. In another screening, Onyeka Igwe’s No Archive Can Restore You lingered over the rusted cans of the Nigerian Film Unit. The decay of analogue film has a well-established romance, perhaps because its time is just out of reach, within living memory, and hence its destruction is imagined as preventable. But as with any technology of memory, the loss of film is as indispensable as its survival to its history.

The Orphan Film Symposium is premised on this ephemerality. Orphan films survive by accident. They give the lie to the fantasy of total availability, representing as they do the tip of a lost iceberg. Meant to serve a time-limited purpose, the passage of these films into history has been crafted with today’s arguments, technologies, and archival optics. Often meant to be private, their public existence diffracts their modes of address and complicates their understanding. This is perhaps the logical setting in which to think about death, and this symposium offered a needed space to do that. It was also one of the best academic conferences / film festivals I have ever attended, and its expanded universe of blog posts and videos constitutes an incredible, generous, and timely resource. Against the relentless futurity of business as usual, the mood at this event felt more authentic. The incredibly skilled technical team greeted us from Mexico DF, wearing facemasks. Presenters joined in from around the world, lamenting a missed appointment at Amsterdam, and always finishing with ‘stay safe’. The combined themes of the symposium – water, climate and migration – reminded us that beneath the current emergency there is a catastrophe that hasn’t gone away with the decreased CO2 emissions of recent months. In other words, widespread death, closed borders, and a retrenchment into the private sphere are not going to stop the waters from rising.

There were two moments in the festival that confronted me with death more directly. At the end of the first day of screenings, as I watched from my sofa well past midnight, I was taken by surprise by a film where Eiren Caffall reflected on her life with the same chronic illness that will probably kill me one day. Safe and alone in my house, I could let my fear run through me until it exhausted itself, find a healing use for that metaphor of the sea within. In that moment I was glad not to have to make small talk with colleagues over canapes afterwards. Then on the third day, also late at night, Ja’Tovia Gary introduced her extraordinary essay film The Giverny Document. Watching this multilayered inquiry into Black experience and pain, on the day of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman, amplified the rage that the images demand. The artist talked about the intricate, beautiful work of animation directly onto film as a somewhat therapeutic practice, which created a powerful tension with archive footage including evidence of police brutality recorded on phones. In conversation with archivist Terri Francis, they consider the fact that thinking about Black media is also thinking about the moving image as evidence. Over the days since then this question has been on my mind, as the harrowing images of George Floyd’s death, filmed by a black teenager, join this ‘counter-archive’ of atrocity and injustice.

But also in the archive: a Black child twirling in the sunshine with a paper plane.

And also for the archive, today: the statue of a slave trader being hauled off its plinth and into the water. Signs of life.

(via GIPHY)


The featured image is a still from In de Tropische Zee / In the Tropical Sea (1914), one of the films screened at the Orphan Film Symposium. It can be seen here with an introduction by Ned Thanhouser, but please be warned that it is a disturbing, cruel film infested with animal death and deploying a racist, colonial gaze.

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.