Sunday, October 21, 2012

OMG, it's been almost two months since i've written anything on this blog! And a lot has happened in those two months.

Mostly: it was the 50th Anniversary of the New York Film Festival, and this year, not so encumbered by medical problems (i'm not getting hit with a diagnosis of cancer, for one thing; in fact, i've recovered from treatments), i went to as many press screenings as possible. What with the various sections of the festival (not just the Main Slate, but sidebars like On the Arts, Special Events, Views from the Avant-Garde, Masterworks, and Midnight Movies), the press screenings lasted over five weeks! I wound up seeing over 30 movies.

On IndieWire, there was a conversation among some of the participants in the Critics Academy, young critics who had been selected to attend the New York Film Festival (cosponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IndieWire), and their response was, now that the festival was over, they miss it. And i feel the same way. Though it was a pain (now that i live in Brooklyn, i had to wake up at 6 so i could make it to the 10 o'clock screenings), the festival itself proved to be very engaging and filled with exciting films and events. Now that i've gotten that out of the way, let me state a few of my misgivings.

This year, more than ever, the New York Film Festival had gone digital. This caused a few mishaps (at least one public screening and one press screening had to be cancelled because a corrupted file would not track properly), but it also brought about a question as to the nature of film. "What is film?" is now not just a formal question, but an ontological question.

Though this was the 50th Anniversary, there was little evidence of the first 25 years of the festival. Quite frankly: in the last purge of the Film Society staff which happened a few years ago, there are no longer any people on staff with any connection to the original New York Film Festival staff. There are few people on staff now who ever knew Richard Roud, let alone Amos Vogel. Amos Vogel died in April of this year, and the anniversary of the festival would have been an appropriate occasion for some event honoring Amos Vogel. (Amos Vogel and Richard Roud cofounded the festival in 1963; as she had done with Cinema 16, Marcia Vogel helped with the administration of the festival in its first years.) Also: the announcement of the retirement of Richard Pena from the Film Society of Lincoln Center after 25 years took precedence. There were events planned to honor Richard Pena, which were certainly justified. Richard Pena navigated the Film Society from an organization with seasonal events (the New York Film Festival, New Directors/New Films cosponsored with the Museum of Modern Art, the annual tribute now called the Chaplin Award Gala) to a year-round film organization with several theaters as well as year-round film programming. Certainly, the tributes to Richard Pena were deserved, however, it would have been nice if some time and space could have been devoted to Amos Vogel at this year's festival.

The lack of an institutional memory is now acute. I'll just give two examples. About five years ago, the structure of the press and industry accreditation process changed. What happened was that there was now a surcharge for industry credentials. (Some film festivals, such as the Berlin Film Festival, charge for both press and industry credentials.) At that point, Eileen Bowser, who had been curator of the Film Archives at the Museum of Modern Art, decided to forego the New York Film Festival. I was appalled, but there was nothing i could do, because the staff was undergoing the purge, and i didn't know who to talk to. The reason i was appalled was: during the first decade of the film festival, the New York Film Festival didn't have the resources for the shipment and storage of film prints, especially archival prints. Richard Roud and Amos Vogel arranged with Eileen Bowser to use the Museum of Modern Art as the conduit for the film prints. This was particularly important because many of the archival prints which were being used were nitrate prints. One of the signal events that everyone who attended still talks about was the 1965 screening of Feuillade's "Les Vampires"; now here was a seven-hour 35-millimeter nitrate print which came from the Cinematheque Francaise, which had to be sent under the auspices of the Film Archives at the Museum of Modern Art. For the first decade of the New York Film Festival, Eileen Bowser was an essential component in the festival's programs. Yet the courtesy that should be accorded to Eileen Bowser doesn't exist because no one at the Film Society knows why.

Creative Time had a reception last week, to inaugurate a conference on the usages of what is now called "new media" in the arts. For that reception, Robert Whitman created a performance event, using iPhones from a variety of places internationally. Now, in 1965, the New York Film Festival had a sidebar on what was called "Expanded Cinema" with Robert Whitman as one of the featured artists. The Film Society of Lincoln Center has been involved in initiatives to expand their involvement in the new platforms available in the digital era; it might have been appropriate to include an artist with a history with the New York Film Festival to present a piece utilizing new media. But if no one is there who knows that Robert Whitman presented a Happening in 1965, the historical concordance remains unknown.

And so that's what i mean when i say that the institutional memory of the New York Film Festival no longer exists. At least, not for the first 25 years of the festival's existence.

But i'll be getting to the films in due time. Suffice it to say that there were any number of films which i found exceptional. To cite ten: "Caesar Must Die"; "First Cousin, Once Removed"; "The Gatekeepers"; "Beyond the Hills"; "Ginger and Rosa"; "The Last Time I Saw Macao"; "Leviathan"; "Night Across the Street"; "Something In the Air"; "Tabu". And many films had something of merit: i found the performances in "Amour" to be extraordinary, even if i felt the film was ultimately manipulative. The diary films "Memories Look at Me" and "Stop" were genuinely moving, even if the initial structure seemed a bit amorphous. And there were worthwhile films in all the sidebar events. As a festival, it was a wonderful experience; too bad it was an anniversary that suffered from memory loss.


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