Sunday, January 15, 2006

Circumnavigating the Cinema

Let's imagine film culture as a vast global terrain, and video technology, the Internet, and all the gratifications of commerce are the methods for mapping out and travelling on this terrain in this day and age. It's easy to get from place to place, and heretofore "remote" areas are becoming more accessible. Now we can throw around buzzwords, "rhizomatic" and all that, but for all the benefits of a smooth space for cinephiles, buffs, Net-surfing compulsive spenders, etc., to inhabit, it is necessary to point out that these benefits exist as part of a trade-off, and are not solely gains. There is always a price to be paid. This trade-off includes video, and the technological-aesthetic complications that arise, but furthermore it concerns questions of access. Once you level the playing field, so that access for "cinematic experience" is limited only by one's amount of disposable income (and leisure time), you negate & erase history, in fact you relegate history itself to the past--"this film, now restored and available on a pristine DVD, was once almost lost." And once the market makes it clear that 'everything is available' with a few clicks and a credit card transaction, if not with cash at your local videostore, anything that is not available doesn't exist. (Until ... the market makes it (re)exist by making it available!) This is a problem that has plagued film culture before video technology, but which is potentially more dangerous now because it is cloaked by the "ultimate freedom" of the digital marketplace.

It's not that things were once good, and are now bad. Things are changing. As Gabe put it, he can't decide if he wants to live in world before or after DVD's arrival. The question is how viable resistance to this latter-day strand of commercial hegemony will now be. Because true cinephilia, as I see it, is one not of consumption but devotion, not of hedonism but real world and cine-world engagement. And it's what ensures that film culture remains lively, that it changes and that we who follow it change with it, that we're never bereft of ways of connecting to other people and other cultures ... through films and through those who also watch them. Sátántangó, an unusual case, is important because those who have seen it, those who love it, and those who want desperately to see it are conjoined in a dialogue with each other--if this resolute, deliberate film (a film unlike just any other) is simply transferred to discs so that anyone can see it at any time and in any (video) way they wish, then Tarr's film becomes culturally irrelevant as an event, it's simply a marathon in Eastern European miserabilism. Of course this is how it is existing only in 35mm, as well--but I'd say, even apart from Tarr's celluloid intentions, film screenings ensure that the event trumps the novelty, whereas video availability reverses this. And all this happens basically in replacement, not in addition to, the small but greatly dispersed base of admirers whose dedication to the cinema, and to this single particular work of cinema, is a sign of connection and perhaps even fellowship.

More people will see Sátántangó if it's on DVD of course, but (a) I don't buy the truism that all art everywhere is best seen by more, more, more people--we need our local specificities, our hidden masterpieces, our holy grails, our challenges, our Mount Everests!; and (b) the trade-offs involved in this specific case with Sátántangó weigh too heavily against it as a work of art. Certain films, for reasons of form or scale, or maybe also reputation, are best not made so readily available for our television screens. Tarr's film is a work that requires an investment of time, patience, and energy from its viewers--it should be large, uninterrupted. And while one could feasibly reproduce these circumstances in a superb home theater, most people won't be seeing the film this way on DVD, and I fear that "to have seen Sátántangó" will lose a lot of its meaning.

Perhaps, perhaps "to have seen Sátántangó" in the sense I'm describing connotes a certain sense of elite club mentality (not the same thing as elitism!), but at least it's upfront about such. I mean, what does someone who sees the film with bathroom breaks, phone calls, and snack runs at their discretion (and perhaps a discontinuous viewing time) mean to accomplish? "Yeah, I sat through Sátántangó as well"--so one can say they've seen it and arrogate for him- or herself that much cultural capital, but perhaps without having put in the same investment for those of us who counted our days-months-years to see the film and then numbed our asses and dried out our eyes watching it as it was meant to be seen.

I am certain that there is a cinephile in, say, Arizona who longs to see this film, who lacks the money to travel far just to see it (trust me, I can relate on this point). And, in the end, when Sátántangó becomes available to all on DVD, I certainly can't blame this devoted person for seeing it on that format. I'm sure this hypothetical cinephile will be more appreciative of this compromised experience than, for instance, the quartet behind me at the screening who tittered at this film that "moves too slow." I won't begrudge such to anyone who cares this much, especially not when I occasionally take my own liberties with rare cinema (mpegs of c. 1970 Godard films!?). Still I--even as lucky as I am to live in New York--know what it is like to pay my dues, bide my time, await chances to see films for years (I have no idea when I will again be able to see my very favorite film, Une histoire de vent), and for me, not only is waiting for some films worth it, but it constitutes part of what being a cinephile (i.e., the audience that will likely want to see and most appreciate Sátántangó) is about. And a DVD of Sátántangó will render smooth and bland the complicated, fascinating terrain that surrounds the film, that helps make it singular, that helps make it important. This is a film, like some others, not meant to be seen under the basic commercial cinema-video lines of exhibition & distribution. It is meant to circumvent these formulae to communicate what it wants to communicate, and it is the type of film worth fighting for to keep "special."

That I want the film to be one of the "special" ones does not mean that I want to be unavailable or scarce--in my own film-healthy city I'd love to see a few screenings organized each year or two!--but I think it should be an event that only comes very occasionally, which requires the viewer to succumb to its terms rather than the other way around. When it comes out on DVD, I personally can't think of seeing it in this form.


girish said...

Zach, what a great post.
The name of your blog has long become obsolete!
Your posts are perfectly lucid and even though they contain your own stance, their "terrain" is open, not closed, to others for stepping into. At least that's the feeling the quality of your writing communicates.

Okay. Satantango. I saw it (an unforgettable experience) in Berkeley a couple of years back. It was a single screening (not a series). There were only about forty of us left at the end, and we each received a little surprise: a MoMA book of interviews with Tarr, afterwards.

But. I must say that, much as I think the big-screen experience of a movie to be special, it is also possible to fetishize it a little, thereby underestimating the capability of art to exert a powerful, ineffable effect even on something so humble and unmysteriously oridnary as a TV screen and a DVD player. Some of my key cinephilic memories from my teen years that marked me for life were 13-inch TV, B&W poor-reception viewings of films by Mrinal Sen and Jean-Pierre Melville. I'm not at all sure these experiences would have been significantly more earth-shaking for me on the big screen.
I guess I'm saying:
the experience of art is (I think) produced (as Duchamp once said) in a process of collaboration between a work and the audience. So, I would not underestimate the potent cinephilic energy and respect that a viewer can bring to a movie anywhere and anyplace, even it it's just on a little TV set.
But, essentially, I agree with your point, Zach. I can't imagine my Berkeley "Satantango" experience being matched on DVD, that's for sure.

Zach Campbell said...

Girish, I agree that art, by its nature, is often durable enough withstand some transformations to its sensory aspects--whether it's fading paint or a film-to-video transfer. And I've had to many great experiences watching films on video to argue otherwise! (Hell, even Fred Camper of all people has admitted that he's seen films on television that were great.) And, apart from how I get to see rare films on my own, I'm interested in the ways that films are seen, empirically, by people, even if in non-ideal, unintended circumstances.

My own contention has to do not with singular filmic experiences (with the Tarr film or otherwise) but with broader cultural practices. I'm not against the committed viewer who sees Sátántangó on DVD or VHS; I'm more against the idea that this film is (and we're entitled for it to be) always there for us, on our terms ...

Theo said...

Sorry to butt in, but this post hits me where I live - which is in a small place (Cyprus) without much happening film-wise. I'm also older than you, so I vividly remember the days before DVD and/or internet shopping.

I think it's unfair to label as "the market" (a loaded word) and "commercial hegemony" something that's in fact been a liberating force for cinephiles worldwide. As you say, it's important "that we're never bereft of ways of connecting to other people and other cultures", but in fact we were bereft of such things a decade ago, when "succumb[ing] to [a film's] terms" meant not watching it at all or watching a faded facsimile.

Many years ago (must've been '97 or '98), I wrote on my website about walking out of a disfigured print of Aguirre, even though I knew it wouldn't turn up on the big screen again (it hasn't). I had the same experience with an awful, cut-to-shreds print of Forbidden Games, which I can now finally watch on video. If you think DVD is a "compromised experience" you should've seen the compromises watching films entailed (for me) a decade ago.

Anyway, I know you're not talking about DVD per se but lamenting a lost sense of 'event', which is also a lost sense of community. But even so, I find a contradiction in your thinking. You say you privilege a film's terms over its viewer's - but what always matters is the film itself, as an ontological entity. If we're going to fret about how and where people see it, isn't that in effect subjugating the film to the viewer?

All that said, it's true Satantango wouldn't be the same on video...

Zach Campbell said...

I think you may be misinterpreting a little, Theo--you write:

You say you privilege a film's terms over its viewer's

Well, I never made a categorical statement like this, if that's what you're insinuating. And applied only to Sátántangó and films that are comparably special (I dunno, Jacques Rivette's Out 1 which I long to see one day?) I think it holds up: some films lose something when you make them just there, for everyone to watch at home provided you can buy or rent it. You admit yourself that Sátántangó wouldn't be the same on video.

I also stated explicitly that I didn't think things were "better" before DVD, only that they were changing. As a general rule I'm in favor of greater circulation of films, even when on video. I'm fully aware that there are more choices available now than there were before. But I see no reason to sit back and bask in consumer glee.

If we're going to fret about how and where people see it, isn't that in effect subjugating the film to the viewer?

Well, if a broader availability of art books with beautiful plates were to somehow make great museums, churches, etc. less likely to be seen in situ and in the form they were made, then yes, I'd "fret." I don't feel optimistic that a DVD of Sátántangó will make screenings of the film more frequent or meaningful for most people.

Steve said...

I realize that you're talking about the rare class of films that are meant to be experienced as events, but it strikes me that this lines up with industry rhetoric I've heard about how spectacular blockbusters are going to be the only films people will still want to see on the big screen in a decade. Does SATANTANGO have more in common with Jackson's KING KONG than any of us would like to admit, and is this a bad thing? Is it perverse that WEST OF THE TRACKS and EVOLUTION OF A FILIPINO FAMILY, the two very long films I most want to see right now (apart from OUT 1: NOLI ME TANGERE), were shot on video and, as far as I know, have never been transferred to 35mm? Or that HITLER, A FILM FROM GERMANY was made for TV and meant to be seen over 3 nights?

Do you think that MOMA's decision to present SATANTANGO for a week is unrelated to the forthcoming DVD release? Criterion often releases Rialto films 6 months after a thatrical run, as Sony did with THE PASSENGER. A cynic would say that this re-release is just a form of advertising, but I think you're going too far to the other extreme in suggesting that a SATANTANGO DVD is likely to make theatrical screenings less frequent. If someone in Indiana now has the possiblity of seeing SATANTANGO, even if in a diminished form, this may be a reasonable trade-off.

Brian said...

I think Steve's right in that a lot of the opportunities even we in cinematheque-rich locations are getting to see great prints of rare and/or challenging films stem precisely from the popularity of such films on DVD. I suspect the economics of 35mm film distribution are making it more and more prohibitive for niche fare to get screened, but at least right now, a healthy market of niche DVD buyers helps subsidize the screenings we lucky few in places like New York and (to a lesser degree) San Francisco have access to.

But DVD players are not only owned by cinephiles in places like Indiana and Cyprus. San Francisco movie buffs have them too, and every new section of terrain that becomes traversable through digital advances makes it just that much less appealing to brave transportation, ticket prices, and all the other hazards even repertory theatres aren't immune to.

So, in the short run, a potential DVD release of something like Satantango makes it more likely to be screened, I suspect that in the long run film distributors and programmers will be more likely to shy away from it, fearing that their target audience will have already seen it, if bit by bit on a home viewing system, and decide not to come. I hope I didn't miss my last chance when Tarr's film played twice in Berkeley in November 2001. (I didn't think it would be at the time, otherwise I probably would have braved a screening instead of seeing Diary of a Country Priest and a program of Larry Jordan and Bruce Conner films- not that the Bresson or the Jordan films have reappeared in the area either).

Perhaps digital projection is a possible way for repertory theatres to pull out of this vicious spiral. Even small, upstart film clubs might be able to solve some, if not all, of the problems with seeing a Bela Tarr film on DVD. Have you ever listened to the Flaming Lips' Zaireeka the way it was meant to, as an event with friends? Perhaps something like that can be done with a Satantango too.

In the meantime, the threat of the "last chance to view on celluloid" hangs over all my filmgoing decisions and it can be stressful. Like tonight: I still haven't decided whether to see a film I've been wanting to for years, (People on Sunday) or a pair of early Paramount thrillers I'd never heard of before (Crime Without Passion and the Scoundrel). Among factors to weigh: which is more likely to come around in 35mm again (maybe neither)? Which is more likely to be put on DVD? Which would likely be more compromised on that format?

Zach Campbell said...

Steve, King Kong was conceived and produced as something that would play in theaters in a commercial run, and then on DVD. It was made to be "available to everybody" from the start. Sátántangó is not this kind of film, and what I lament is not people viewing great films on video (I do this too often myself) but the idea that we're entitled a chance to view anything we want on video, and that something coming on video is automatically a good thing because in all cases wider home viewing capability is the way to go. How often do we hear the film enthusiast say, "It's coming to DVD!" rather than "The most likely place I will be able to see this film is only on DVD." I hope I'm proven wrong: I hope that the DVD release(s) of Tarr's work(s) will give people--and not just in metropolitan areas--chances to see his work on the big screen. I myself would like another opportunity to see ones that I've missed (Almanac of the Fall, Damnation) that I would rather not see on the small screen. But I'm pessimistic about what all this means for larger film culture.

And Brian: I can't recall where right away, but I have heard something great about Crime Without Passion ...

Adrian said...

Fascinating post, Zach, and much to talk about spinning off it. There are many illustrious people, like Peter von Bagh and Olaf Moeller, who stand up for the primacy of 'projected prints' over DVD/video - partly for the event & community reasons you mention. But, for me, the weak part of this argument is precisely print quality. To see a newly struck, mint condition print of PLAYTIME or PETER IBBETSON or BANDE A PART in a theatre is absolutely sensational. But how many of us ever get to see prints in that state? Film perishes bloody quickly! In many, many cases, DVD has given me an ecperience of image - and, sometimes even more significantly, sound - in a way that I have NEVER got from watching faded, scratched, murky old prints of the sort that limp across the seas to Australia.

Gabe Klinger said...

Mostly responding to Brian --

I don't think that in ten years any of the things we are discussing will be discussed unless we continue to discuss them _as much as possible_. Whatever the new technology will be -- Blu-Rays or HD-Discs or whatever -- it will have an effect on cinephile culture that people will no longer thing twice about. We no longer think about cell phones, though I think they're annoying and gave up mine a long time ago when I realized: hey, I have a phone at home and at work, why the hell do I need another one?

Anyway, let's look at some of the effects DVD culture is having on film culture:

1. Both the Ljubljana and Moscow Cinematheques shut down in the last year because the people in charge (cultural ministers, etc.) thought that it would be easier to have digital archives of films rather than preserving celluloid, which takes up too much storage space.

2. THE BIG RED ONE was finally restored to a version resembling what Sam Fuller had originally intended -- all thanks to Richard Schickel and the fact that Warner Bros. thought they could recoup restoration costs from DVD sales of the film. But the 35mm copies of the film that showed up in theaters were struck from digital intermediates that looked shitty. The reason: Warners didn't want to put up the dough to have a print made from original materials.

3. Virtually every public library in the United States -- excluding the New York Public library, which has the invaluable Donnell Media Center -- sold off or donated their 16mm film collections in favor of purchasing DVD collections.

.... of course, I could go on.

And KING KONG is a lousy film -- it won't be remembered in a year, much less in ten years. SATANTANGO will be around forever, let's hope.

Steve said...

I wonder what Tarr himself would make of this debate. Obviously, by making a 7 and 1/2 hour film, he's pushing himself outside normal distribution channels. (Did it ever get a commercial run in Hungary?) However, I fear that its semi-legendary, evanescent status is a projection of Western cinephiles and our difficulties seeing it. What would you think if Tarr said that he did indeed want SATANTANGO to be widely available?

I'm sorry that archives and libraries are junking their 16mm prints. However, just because something is on film, that doesn't mean it looks good. The 2001 print owned by NYU is an embarrassment - I'd much rather see a DVD projected on a large screen with good speakers - and it's not the only one in the university's collection.

md'a said...

I'm with you insofar as it's unlikely that viewers experiencing Sátántangó for the first time on DVD are going to indulge in the sort of semi-masochistic total immersion that really ought to be part and parcel of watching it. But your lament about the film losing its event status smacks of music fans who bitch and moan when their favorite band is discovered by a wider audience and thus becomes less "special" in their minds. Which I think is undeniably elitist.

I do kind of see your point, in that e.g. I hustled out to see Fighting Elegy last week at MoMA whereas I might well never get around to it were the DVD sitting here in my apartment, accessible to me any night I choose. But that's true of virtually any movie you could name, and has more to do with evanescence forcing choices upon us that could otherwise be indefinitely postponed.

Zach Campbell said...

Adrian, I want to emphasize that I am not making this an abstract, generalized case of film vs. video. A good DVD vs. a bad print will usually fall in favor of the good DVD. This is about certain films, and about our experience not being relegated to a single, monolothic theatrical/DVD continuum for which we categorize--and too often normalize--commercial feature films, often at the expense of those films that are different.

Steve, if Tarr wants this film on DVD, fine. I would question his judgment in this case, but it's his work to do with as he likes. It sounds like it's coming out on DVD, and I have zero power to change that, anyway.

And I don't want Sátántangó to be "semi-legendary and evanescent"--this is your (and yours, Mike) misunderstanding of what I'm going for, which is not of hallowed and, um, "evanescent" church- or museumlike respect, but of engagement of a work on its own quite singular terms, and to allow it to remain singular. I want it to be accessible; I would like for many people to get a chance to see it. (And I'm glad that so many people seemed to have caught it at this weekend run.) But I'm not convinced that it's a good idea for Sátántangó to be made accessible in. this. way. (And everybody here does seem to agree that DVD is not the best way to see Sátántangó.)

I am fully aware that, celluloid becoming more precious a commodity, this may be the only way for the film to be made more accessible: my ideals don't blind me to facts. This is the way that cultural forces are pushing. But I don't have to like it just because it's inevitable, and I don't have to turn a blind eye to a clear compromise and pretend it's all roses.

And the "my favorite band" sentiment is ridiculous, Mike. You'd possibly have an analogous point if Tarr and his film were making headlines, getting magazines articles, appearing on lots of top ten lists, etc. and I was complaining that he was more special when he was "underground." But I'm not saying this, I'm not at all talking about reputation and recognition, and I'm not even a Tarr fanboy (I've seen only three of his films, one of which I dislike as much as I like the other two) ...

I mean, do you all think that everything ever shot on film should be available on DVD? And do you think that if this were to happen celluloid culture will still be alive and well?

All I am saying is that sometimes the availability of a piece of cinema should not boil down to what we might call the Couch Potato's Prerogative.

Zach Campbell said...

Or, I guess what I want, what it comes to in the end, is for Sátántangó to remain a film that one comes to, and not a film that comes to one on demand.

md'a said...

Or, I guess what I want, what it comes to in the end, is for Sátántangó to remain a film that one comes to, and not a film that comes to one on demand.

I don't disagree with that, but it's a statement I'd make about pretty much every film, not just this one. And of course, as Theo notes, it's a statement that's easier to make from a locale like New York, where you can feel fairly confident that movies you want to see will turn up on a screen if you wait long enough.

Adrian said...

Zach, yes, I didn't mean to 'derail' your post into a general film print vs video/DVD argument. Actually, you can find some support for your argument in Thierry Jousse's intriguing column 'Place of the Sepctator' in the new French mag PANIC. He puts very well there some doubts about the 'commodification' of cinema into DVD culture: for him, DVD signals the final 'atomising' of the spectator, who merely acquires/consumes what he/she already expects to see, who 'discovers' little or nothing, who 'stockpiles and fetishises', who comes to trust the 'information' provided as bonuses rather than searching out true critique ... but his opposite to all that is: surfing cable TV! (Where, as he says, the spectator is at least a 'fish in an aquarium' swimming among other fish!) His piece on this is witty and provocative.

Zach Campbell said...

Adrian, feel free to 'derail,' I just wanted to make sure it was clear what I was and wasn't trying to say ... I'll look for the magazine with the Jousse article.

And Mike, if I do what I want to do and become an academic, the chances are 90% that I will end up in the sticks, and 99.5% that I will not be in New York. So if, in 10-15 years, I change my tune, you can say 'I told you so.' You can even do it like Brian does to Peter on that episode of Family Guy.

HarryTuttle said...

Interresting discussion, gentlemen.
I agree with everyone here, and the main controversy, I believe, seems to circumnavigates around viewing behavior rather than accessibility. DVD is only a commodity that increases availability as an aside, on top of whoever celluloid reaches out to. DVDs cannot, in principle, alter the essence of the film itself. Only viewers will if they use it disrespectfully, and this is speculations.

Apparently even the very elitist MoMA attendance was not all reverent and subjuggated in presence of this rare event (from what I heard).
I think you're blaming people for seeing things they are not worthy to be allowed to. Maybe I misunderstand though.
The laws of the market (demand/supply, budgetability, profitability) that offer an opportunity to fund film art, but do not define it. Satantango is just not formated for a profitable niche... and we should be grateful that this perspective didn't discourage an artist to develop such unprofitable project anyway, and that someone produced it and printed some reels at all.

The masterpiece in celluloid will never be altered by the side DVD distribution or the lazy negligent audience watching it, or not. You don't preserve art like a Grail with a faith test and straining barriers to weed out the unbelievers. Let's not desire that the enlighted chosen few be selected/limited by an arranged material scarcity.
The hope for every filmmaker/artist is for their work to be seen by many people, and loved by most.

I'm a celluloid purist, and I wholeheartedly agree with your dream, but I know it's wishful thinking, which dark side is that we want people to earn their culture possibly to value it dearer. But that's not very democratic. Culture should be free and undiscriminative.
Henri Langlois' goal was to show his most obscur findings to the people in a public space.

One sure thing, people who didn't watch it end-to-end, slept through, FastForwarded it cannot claim to criticize it. But the general audience, who doesn't publish an authoritative judgement is not bound by such coercive conditions, thus are free to discover it anywhich way they see fit. And even the copyright holder cannot do anything about it.

Personally I saw Satantango screened at an arthouse in Paris that ran it on morning shows, in 3 parts over 3 consecutive days, once a week, over the course of more than 2 months. So obviously I cannot belong to the elite who suffered through 7 1/2 hours straight. I wish I had, I really do.
In a perfect world this movie could be seen without interruptions only, but is it really its purpose? Is the duration of the film more quintessential than its sense of inner pace? Taken separately each chapter evokes the same instant languor, at any time, that the film defines as a whole, IMHO.

Sorry to impose myself without invitation.

Zach Campbell said...

For what it's worth, Mubarak Ali has finally come out and said that he's only seen the film on video, and to me he's a perfect example of someone who, as I mentioned originally, would get more out of a video viewing of the film than the grumbling/laughing walkouts who attend a screening. If the film is not available otherwise (a shame), I don't blame anyone for seeing it this way--I tried to make this clear, though perhaps I didn't make it clear enough--I'm only questioning a sort of consumer mentality with regard to the film, and with regard to films in general.

I'd love to see film (celluloid) clubs pop up again all over the world, which won't happen, but which might happen through video. And this itself is probably another blog entry, something I've been thinking about a lot, but not one for today.

But my complaints do no good anyway. If people see the film in any format and get something out of it, that's what matters most, even if it's not all that matters ...

Mubarak Ali said...

Zach, thanks for that - you are too kind. And I assure you that your post was "lucid" and unambiguous, as always.

Filmbrain said...

Interesting piece. While I agree with you about the experience of Satantango on the big screen, I too am tired of lousy prints in second rate theaters. L'Intrus on my plasma looks and sounds far better than it did at the Cinema Village. Even living in NYC as I do, I see a large number of films on DVD that never (or rarely) screen here.

I'm not crazy about terms like suffering, or masochism, when applied to this film. Running time is irrelevant -- it's the film itself that matters. Suffering Million Dollar Baby for two hours is my idea of cinematic masochism.

HarryTuttle said...

Don't worry, I knew I might have missed something (English is not my language). I just wanted to contribute to this discussion.
And I agree with you anyway, the celluloid market is threatened by video! and it will only survive if cinephiles support/prefer theatrical distribution as often as possible.

Like Girish said, a movie will connect with the audience, even if it's on a B&W TV set, precisely because filmcraft is so rich, and not limited to its format.

p.s. my use of the word "suffering" was ironic (I should have used quotation marks, sorry). I LOVED Satantango, of course.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read all the comments and I don't understand every sentence in your original blog (this is my problem not yours) but i wanted to add two things. Firstly, i am a filmmaker as well a cinephile, and dvd/video allows me to watch the same film three times in a day, or the same scene over and over, or pull out a sequence to watch over breakfast and then contemplate throughout the day. This is a different form of reverence towards great cinema but for me is a very real one.

Secondly, in the last days of the local cinematheque (I live in Sydney, Australia and we no longer have a cinematheque in a city of 4 million) we would be lucky to have twenty people in the audience, of which I would often be the only one under thirty. Returning to my home town of Perth (no cinematheque there either) I watched Von Trier's The Kingdom off VHS with eight old friends over four consecutive nights one week. It was every bit an "event" that the moribund Sydney cinematheque failed to be. My point is that it is not a question of whether you begrudge the latter fact or not, it is that it would seem that the medium itself isn't the defining factor in whether viewing attains the heights of being a moment of "devotion" or of a "cine-world engagement", and the concept of watching a film "how it was meant to be watched" is very problematic. Watching a film on celluloid with an audience full of "yeah I sat through its" is arguably further away from the experience the director intended than standing around a mobile phone with a filp out screen with a bunch Hitchcockians laughing at every double entendre in NbyNW.

(Okay, this is a third point.) I love all the aspects of trekking out and finding one-off screenings of great old films that I can't watch anywhere else. I love imagining the first time those films were screened, and the world that produced them. But having grown up pre-internet in "the most isolated city in the world" (that is not an exaggeration) your Arizona hypothetical is all too real. Quite simply I wasn't even exposed to the concept of cinephilia (on VHS or whatever) because it was all but impossible to practice in my hometown. Your blog fails to address the idea that even when Satantango becomes available to "everybody, everywhere" on DVD, it really isn't available to those in areas who have such limited exposure to anything that resembles film culture that its really not available. I have friends back home that are passionate film watchers, astute viewers, and some of them even talented filmmakers. But the idea of hunting down films, searching for grails or golden fleeces or whatever isn't really an option when you're 2000kms (1200miles) from the next closes city, and living in a place void of anything that resembled film distribution. So a different concept of cinephilia develops from that which you describe. And as I descend into mild belligerence... if you really want a challenge, get a friend to hide your DVD in a national park, or try to make it to your local cinemateque blindfolded, for many it will be difficult enough to see any of these wonderful films on any format ever.

An irrelevance: Have you ever read a novel (like a 500 or 600 page novel) in one sitting? I've done it on a couple of occasions and I'm quite certain it isn't the right way to read a book. I'm not at all diagreeing with your imperative for watching a proper work in a continuous fashion, on the contrary. I just thought it was a nice irony.

Zach Campbell said...

'Anonymous,' thanks for your thoughtful post. Regarding your first point: I agree, video has fine worth & usefulness as a tool.

On your second point and third points: I've tried to make clear (although maybe I haven't done this well enough) that my concerns reside not so much with people unable to see some films watching--as I tried to state explicitly in my blog entry, from the first, I acknowledge that people living far outside of global metropolises, and there are plenty of cinephiles or merely interested viewers who will do what they must do to see films, even in compromised situations. This practice is not my enemy! What I have tried (however poorly, perhaps) to critique is instead the mentality by which access for everybody (empirically carried out by means of video technologies) is the best thing, and that perhaps we as a worldwide film culture immediately embrace--expect and demand, even--this form of wide video availability for most or all ... as though the fact that this is a trade-off is not worth thinking about as a trade-off, as though the fact that a person can order a DVD of whatever they like is worth the shrinking circulation, exhibition & archiving (and "relevance") of film prints. I don't know: do we want a cinema that is in every way 'exhibition-able' in our home theaters? I don't know that I do, at any rate, though I'm only partly aware of why I feel this way ...

As you say, in very remote places, even with the Internet, access isn't perfect--and I concede that you're right, and it's too simplistic of me to say that everything is completely 'smooth' and readily available. Even so, the Internet (whether with downloading or online commerce) has levelled the field considerably, don't you think?

And the novel: no, never a 500-600 page novel in one sitting. (The closest I've come to this was reading translations of Death and Venice and The Baron in the Trees back to back on an overseas flight.) But novels of this length were never meant to be read in one sitting, were they? said...

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