CIFF 2010: The Film Festival Debate Continues

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

When I started thinking about what I would say to wrap up this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, I knew it would not be the usual gathering of impressions, recaps, acknowledgments, and griping about being tired. I got a thorn stuck in my craw after reading an interview with Gabe Klinger about the festival. There was much Gabe said that I agreed with, particularly about the need for more outreach and new blood, which I believe an endeavor of any kind needs perhaps as often as every five years. But I also felt a stale wind blow regarding taste and who sets it and, of course, the age-old question of show vs. business and the uneasy alliance that has existed since the dawn of cinema between those with the money and those with the vision. I had to ask myself some hard questions about how I see my role, not only in covering this festival, but also as a film blogger. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading some intelligent and cogent articles, blog posts, and comments on these and related subjects, including the contentious and enlightening post and comments on Girish Shambu’s site just prior to the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival and a look at film journalism by Chris Fujiwara.

In the spirit of the debate about Toronto, I want to say a few words about the festival I just finished covering. CIFF is not a destination film festival for making deals and apparently has no plans to become one. Nor is it one that wishes to explore cinema at the edge or educate audiences; while I liked, even loved, a lot of the films I saw, I can’t call most of them cutting edge or revelatory of new possibilities in cinema. CIFF is what its founder and staff do for a living and to give themselves the perks of hobnobbing and travel, and like most long-time employees, they do what they know how to do year after year.

The festival is a very American affair, with honorees in most years comprising American directors and actors and marquee films opening and closing the festival comprising mainstream American product. The audience for the films they program are largely middle-brow Midwesterners looking for something to do, cinephiles from small towns near Chicago who are hungry for something other than multiplex fare, or immigrants who want to see films with scenes from their old country in their native language. It offers audiences a veneer of sophistication by bringing the “big” cinephile films from Cannes in—and this festival is nothing if not Francophile, reflected enduring ties from its founding during the rise of the French New Wave. But if CIFF had not offered Uncle Boonmee, that film certainly would have shown up (and will show up again) in one of the venues around Chicago, which has a very vibrant cinematic community offering experimental, foreign, revival, and video presentations every day and more specialized film festivals and retrospectives than I can shake a stick at. CIFF doesn’t have to be more than it is—audiences won’t demand it because there’s something for everyone outside of the festival—but I never hear the end of hardcore cinephiles saying they hate CIFF.

From my reading about other festivals, it seems the conditions that persist at CIFF are not unusual. Is that really what film festivals are these days—a race to the middle? Strip malls? The hardcore cinephiles in Chicago know they’re being ignored by the “premier” cinematic event of the year. But are they snobs who can’t find value in anything that isn’t difficult or trendy? Sadly, encountering the snobs is a very distasteful part of my cinematic experience. It’s not hard to see great value in many films that offer other kinds of challenges and delights, particularly the chance to see and understand life in other parts of the world. These types of films have comprised the bulk of my viewing at the 2010 CIFF. What comprises an “important” film or national cinema is debatable, but for me, it involves finding the universal in the particular and activating archetypes that are the road to personal and global transformation. That’s why a film like Uncle Boonmee, which I can’t say I enjoyed in the usual sense, has so much power and so deserved to win at Cannes. Yet, I can imagine the snobs touting it without understanding it in the least—and CIFF did nothing to make the film accessible to casual or serious filmgoers besides show it.

My role isn’t terribly complicated, but I also feel that CIFF doesn’t “get” me either. As someone with a “general” press pass, I am able to see films for free in exchange for publicizing them through my blog, hopefully in advance of screenings to drive ticket sales. I am not considered by CIFF a top-tier member of the press and therefore am not invited to stand on the red carpet (unless they can’t fill it), attend the awards ceremony, or take screeners home to view because CIFF does not consider my audience significant enough to court—they have never asked for my “distribution” statistics, therefore they must not care how many or where my readers are located. In this stance, CIFF further reveals its isolation from the international film community that it advertises in its very name. Reporters from Chicago-centric publications like our daily and weekly newspapers and the Chicagoist website do belong to this privileged caste, reflecting the desire of organizers to promote ticket sales among locals and the assumption that these outlets are still where their audience get their film information.

Even as I see the limitations of this festival, I understand that I myself am in a privileged position. A large number of my readers and even my blog partner will never get the chance to see most or all of the films I do. I recently got into a heated debate with someone over a favorite directors list that comprised nothing but majority men we’d recognize as more-or-less the usual canon. As I told him, “Movies tell us about ourselves, but you can take for granted that you’ll have your stories told (certainly your favorite directors reflect your satisfaction with the stories they tell to some extent) whereas I cannot.” With more distribution channels opening on the Internet and in other home-viewing formats, I can only hope that my shout-outs can give some of these films a chance to deliver their ideas to more people so the universe of ideas can expand beyond the usual suspects. Although I acknowledge it as a deficit, I am not primarily a champion of the aesthetics of film; I am an activist interested in communication through word, image, and emotion of the experience of being alive. That’s what it is my responsibility to promote, and as long as I write, I’ll take it seriously. l

Previous CIFF coverage

Problema: A meeting of 112 thinkers and doers who give their answers to 100 pressing problems of our day forms the core of this open-source documentary that will be available for recutting and showing to anyone anywhere in the world. (Germany)

The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)

Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)

Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)

Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Greg F spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 10:41 pm

    Although I acknowledge it as a deficit, I am not primarily a champion of the aesthetics of film; I am an activist interested in communication through word, image, and emotion of the experience of being alive.

    That’s exactly why I’ve always felt like an outsider to the “aesthetics” film blogging community. And for the record, I don’t think it’s a deficit. My wife doesn’t paint so someone will analyze her use of color, she paints because she wants to express herself and hopes someone will be moved as well. It’s why I make music and film. It’s why I write, to understand myself and my love of film.

    It’s a tough road to travel as a cinephile because it’s certainly important to care about proper aspect ratios and optimum presentation details but as long as a movies has those things I don’t care to discuss them (if that makes any sense). I just need to know everything is being correctly presented and then I want to experience the film and talk about it and what it said to me. When I see entire articles and discussions on aspect ratios and film grain I feel (and I’ve gotten into trouble before for saying this) they’re missing the point of the experience.

    As to the festival, you covered it superbly and it’s a shame that bloggers are not yet viewed as being on par with the daily print publications. The readership of a blog (commercial ones like Ebert excluded) will never match the hundreds of thousands of daily readers a newspaper gets (or millions in the cases of the biggest ones) and that’s all the festival is ever going to look at: overall numbers. Not who’s reading, but how many.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 11:08 pm

    I think the dichotomy between aesthetics and visceral experience may be somewhat exaggerated here – we only have the visceral experience through the aesthetics (I recently got into a debate with someone about Wendy and Lucy and they kept talking about it as if it had no aesthetic style or strategy when in fact it has a very conscious, even extreme one). A good critic will remind the reader how the two are interrelated – i.e. they will not just go off on a tangent about aspect ratios but relate the filmmaker’s use of the frame to the sensibility and experience they are trying to convey.

    I find this to be, by and large, the most satisfying writing because sometimes I feel that film analysis which avoids form becomes a bit to abstract – there’s something so satisfying about returning the tangible object and interacting with it. But this is very, very hard – I find I’ve mostly avoided it in my own writing which tends far more towards impressionism; I’ve focused more on what’s being delivered than how, perhaps unfortunately. (That said I don’t necessarily regret it; formal analysis by its nature requires more time to put together, and can’t really be produced at the pace of normal blog-posting, at least in my own experience). I think David Bordwell is someone who does a good job bridging this gap.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 2:30 am

    In certain respects, I am lucky in that I have been provided with access to screeners to augment the films I will be seeing theatrically. In terms of the films, I will only be able to see one of the films you reviewed, being Uncle Boonmee. There are actually Cannes winners that have not traveled as far beyond the festival.

    I’m not sure what it says about the Denver festival that the other films you wrote about are not coming here. Certainly there is a bit of discovery for myself in these next couple of weeks. There is a little bit of inspiration, as in addition to showing Letter to Elia, the Kazan film to be screened will be Wild River. Hopefully, the films I do see will make up for not seeing some of the higher profile films celebrated in the previous festivals.

    My big gripe is still the lack of Asian narrative films, especially with the discontinuation of the Asian Film Festival that use to take place here.

    The big questions remain on why a festival and who is it for?

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 7:03 am

    Peter, good last question. My own thought on the matter is that, in terms of diversity and approach, festivals are not going to reform themselves – while the technology still is not optimal for viewing, I suspect that in the coming decade or two a sort of online grouping of films will supplant, or rather complement (there will always be a place for theatrical screenings, at least I hope) the festival circuit. Similar to the way it has worked with criticism and blogging, I suppose.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 8:40 am

    Y’all have had a good conversation started while I was asleep.

    Greg and Joel – I need more education about the visual aspects of film because they are indeed the medium for conveying the message and are a vital part of the “narrative” and artistry of the film. In the classes I’ve taken, this was not a big part of the discussion, but then, the classes were more informal film appreciation types of classes. I am keyed into images, particularly in experimental work in which the image may be the only real information you get, and that’s like appreciating a painting to me. There’s a feeling that develops, and I think even in a heavily narrative film, without this feeling, the film will fail.

    Peter – I did have access to screeners, but I had to go down to the CIFF offices to watch them. This was not terribly convenient, but it beat trying to have to stuff several movies a day into my schedule and then try to write everything up. I was able to review more films this way in a more leisurely way. As for Asian films, they were hardly a blip at the CIFF – a couple fromSouth Korea, one from Singapore, Uncle Boonmee. I was unhappy with the low representation of African films – only one and it was a coproduction between France and Burkina Faso.

    I’m not sure about festivals online myself. There is definitely something to be said for the critical mass of films, filmmakers, and audiences seeing the films on the big screen. You can’t replace the festival experience online, and I think we will see a backing away from online everything as people become hungry for contact again.

    What I’ve seen is niche film festivals. In Chicago, we have Gay & Lesbian, Polish, Latino, Israeli, Movies & Music, Experimental, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch more. The Siskel Center puts together month-long concentrations – this month, it is Iranian films, and their EU festival is really great. They can offer the pedagogical aspects, being part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, for some programs, though they could do much more than they do.

    I think the link I provided to Girish’s site really contains a lot of great ideas and information about festivals, and I can’t begin to duplicate what’s there, especially the lengthy comments section. Go over and read it. I found it very worthwhile.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 8:56 am

    I am keyed into images, particularly in experimental work in which the image may be the only real information you get, and that’s like appreciating a painting to me.

    No, I am too! I’m not saying the visuals aren’t important, obviously in cinema, they are. I’m talking about debating the minutia of whether this current DVD has the proper framing that the 1975 release had and is the film grain sufficient to the digital clean-up for the new Blu-ray and yadda, yadda, yadda. That kind of overly technical talk that you see in forums and some of the blogging community (though admittedly, not a big part).

    But visuals, yes! How a movie looks is often directly related to how I emotionally experience it.

  • MovieMan02832 spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 8:59 am

    Thanks, Marilyn, I’ll check it out. I agree that “online” can only do so much – maybe the best that could happen is that the internet provides both an avenue for distribution and exhibition, and also facilitation for “offline” such gatherings.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 9:11 am

    I do have an interest in the mechanics of film creation and projection, but unless you’re reading a DVD review like they have on DVD Beaver, I don’t find the information terribly useful in most instances. Honestly, though, I can’t think of any critics who do this kind of hair-splitting in their reviews. In any case, I’m not as good at noticing the specific visual elements as I’d like to be, but whre there’s life, there’s hope.

    Joel – Yes, distribution is what I had in mind when I talked about the value of the Internet to world cinema.

  • Michael Guillen spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 12:02 pm

    Marilyn: Thank you for your singular perspective on Chicago’s International Film Festival within the context of Chicago’s cinephilic landscape, which sounds diverse. Your intuition that international film festivals serve a purpose that offsets the variety of community-based and niche festivals available in most major cities is, of course, an accurate one and I argue for a better understanding of what those various incentives and objectives are in order to more effectively critique them, if necessary. There are as many stakeholders invested in an international film festival as there are cinephilias. That plurality is essential to understanding what is expected of film festivals, what is desired, what is endured, what is enjoyed.

    The tiering of press, most notably between online and print, has been a thorn in my side since I began writing on film a handful of years ago and it has always struck me as a decidedly unfair and false hierarchy. I’ve seen many accommodating changes in the past few years, such that the distinction between online and print is less divisive as in years past (at least here in the Bay Area); but, the need for publicists to create false hierarchies seems to be requisite to systems of privilege and access. The newest false hierarchy I’m experiencing (oddly enough in my favor) is that now publicists are drawing false lines between film reviewers and film interviewers. Film interviewers are being perceived as essential to the advance publicity of a film, moreso than reviewers, and press screenings are now given preferential treatment to interviewers rather than reviewers. As an interviewer, I can’t complain; but, as someone who is in solidarity with my professional colleagues writing reviews for weeklies, I have to speak out against yet another attempt to divide and conquer, all in the name of publicity. It also forces to be ever attentive to what I am trying to do with an interview. Hopefully it is never just to promote a film.

    The fracas over TIFF left me bruised but more aware that–as I said before–there are as many kinds of cinephilia as there are shades of weather and how cinephilic expectations are tempered has everything to do with the efforts a cinephile takes throughout any given year to offset the limitations of a destination festival like TIFF. After the fact, with hat in hand, I had to understand that I get to watch films constantly and in creative arrangements. Here in SF we have whole programs devoted to national cinemas or genres so my expectations of TIFF have less to do with satisfying those appetites than with gauging the industry of film festivals and the entrenched practice of developing and promoting a bumper crop of films that will travel the world and constitute any given year’s films of note.

    I can’t argue against formalists anymore. I can’t even caricature that they hide behind the formal qualities of film. The same could be said for those who experience movies emotionally. Above all, it strikes me that there is plenty of room in the age of internet cinephilia for each of us to pursue the themes and ways of watching movies that most interest each and every one of us. If anything, I find the challenge to be precisely to articulate and situate one’s interests rather than to feel compelled to honor any fraternity (or sorority). Precisely with film, I take more the Campbellian adventure of striking out on the path least traveled, aware that it would be ignoble to receive wisdom to readily or to not find my own language for my own experience of films. Anything else is hamartia; the arrow misses its mark.

    I’m very pleased to see your write-ups on Ten Winters, Certified Copy and The Princess of Montpensier, as these are films that are just about to screen in upcoming SF festivals, and it delights me to read your experience of these films as I prepare for my own.

    Keep up your invaluable, unique work, Marilyn.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 12:15 pm

    “CIFF is not a destination film festival for making deals and apparently has no plans to become one. Nor is it one that wishes to explore cinema at the edge or educate audiences; while I liked, even loved, a lot of the films I saw, I can’t call most of them cutting edge or revelatory of new possibilities in cinema. CIFF is what its founder and staff do for a living and to give themselves the perks of hobnobbing and travel, and like most long-time employees, they do what they know how to do year after year.”

    Marilyn, this is a very revealing report on the state of affairs involving the “powers that be” at the CIFF, and of how that treat and regard those who are entrusted -like yourself- the task of spreading the word. The Tribeca and the New York Film Festival here in the Big Apple are much the same, I’m afraid, as they rarely consider niche blogs with any serious attention other than occasional press passes. It seems to matter little what the blog stats are or how many comments are left, but rather it’s an obstinance as to what the ultimate worth an internet blog projects. I must say that I salute your philosophy here and fully understand (after reading this) what the ultimate intentions are with a festial that caters to the middle ground. And how true it is that a number of “snobs” will embrace UNCLE BOONMEE without even liking of understanding it. I couldn’t agree with you more too, when you point to the significance of the internet to world cinema.

    Nonetheless I was pleased that this year’s CIFF embraced (in a big way) documentaries and foreign language cinema, and that you were able to spread the word with amazing clarity and a singular resilience.

    I am really hoping we get a general release of UNCLE BOONMEE before the end of the calendar year.

  • Gordon spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 12:43 pm

    Travels and other factors prevented me from attending CIFF this year, but based on the interview with Gabe and firsthand reports from friends, I’m somehow feeling like it’s not all that much of a loss. My lack of regrets isn’t based on any lack of quality of the films themselves—it sounded like a fair-to-middling lineup, but most of the standouts already have distribution, so I haven’t missed my only chance to catch them; it’s due more to the many complaints I’ve heard about projection problems and small, sold-out theatres, as well as the usual excessive ticket prices and just a general dislike of the venue (I avoid multiplexes in my everyday filmgoing, so why should I enjoy going thee for what’s supposed to be a more elevated experience?).

    However, I’ve really appreciated your extensive coverage, which made me feel like I was there vicariously (and gave me guidance on what to look out for when and if it shows up theatrically in the coming months).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 12:52 pm

    Michael – I’m glad you saw fit to dip your toe back in the festival conversation. Here at FonF, that conversation is bound to be less contentious, perhaps because of the brand of cinephilia Rod and I write for.

    I have my problems with formalists, as you call them, because I have experienced a good deal of disdain from them. Obviously, a formalist approach is very important, but I find that when they divorce it from narrative or elevate it above narrative, they discount an essential element – the need we all have for stories, again, in the manner Campbell describes. I find myself more and more viewing films in terms of their archetypal content, for movies are extremely efficient and persuasive mythmakers. Their ability to reinforce or redirect social attitudes make them tools that need to be taken very seriously: Looking for Superman is a rare (so far) example of American propaganda filmmaking that has not gotten the attention as such it really should.

    I agree that some of the barriers between print and online are falling as marketers are becoming more sophisticated about reaching their target audiences. I would expect my profile to rise among filmmakers and producers, not festival programmers, and indeed, I’m inundated with press releases from these quarters. I fully expect programmers to reach out to online purveyors of films for future content, and perhaps even create an online component of their physical festival as an additional source of revenue. I could even envision educators being asked to create podcasts and streaming video to help fulfill the educational function some festivals might wish to explore. This really could be an incredibly fecund time for festivals to revamp, renew, and move forward.

    And to you and Sam – Thanks for your support. Covering CIFF is rewarding, but it’s not easy. I feed off the encouragement of readers like you.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 12:58 pm

    Gordon – I actually quite like the AMC. It’s comfortable, equipped with wide screens for films in that format, and despite Gabe’s complaints that CIFF is alienating the Chicago film community, it was very difficult in the past to run from venue to venue to catch tightly scheduled films, even when the Landmark Century and the Music Box were the two theatres used. Frankly, the Music Box is a terrible venue, with only two screens, and the seeming inability of the volunteers and staff to get people in and out of the theatre in a reasonably timely manner.

    I don’t know the thinking behind the use of smaller theatres, and it may not be as sinister as the cinephiles like to think – perhaps it has to do with AMC and not CIFF’s desire to advertise sellouts. Regardless of the reason, I hope it can be ironed out. Too many people were shut out of films, and CIFF has to have lost revenue as a result, money I’m sure they probably don’t like leaving on the table.

    I didn’t note too many projection problems myself. I’d love to see DVDs go away, but it’s an inexpensive way to get films from festival to festival, so we’re probably stuck with them.

  • Gordon spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 1:13 pm

    A friend warned me that Uncle Boonme—the one film that might’ve gotten me down there—had “a conspicuous flaw running the length of the screen” when he saw it in AMC theatre 5. That was enough to dissuade me from gambling on being able to score rush tickets.

    I’m reluctantly coming to feel that the future of film-viewing isn’t likely be in theatres, and wouldn’t be surprised to see festivals gradually and eventually take the same route. But what would be the point? Once online viewership becomes the norm, festivals will be unnecessary for distributors to consider potential pickups, and critics and the public won’t need to gather—either in theatres or around their individual computers—for rare opportunities to see less-commercial films that won’t be otherwise available.

    What I think I’d miss most if festivals vanish is the social aspect, the camaraderie of discussing the films with friends and other like-minded audience members following the screenings. But as Jonathan Rosenbaum discusses in his new collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, film culture is morphing in ways that are analogous to the changes in viewing methods. Guess we’ll be gathering on comments pages like this one rather than in theatre lobbies.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/10/2010 to 1:21 pm

    Gordon – I don’t think theatres will ever vanish, nor will film festivals. I look at festivals as conventions that are also good for tourism. A great many cities have a vested interest in keeping them going as revenue-generators. And people will always be attracted to the glamor of festivals, not to mention a chance to go to France or Hawaii or San Francisco.

  • Gabe Klinger spoke:
    23rd/10/2010 to 12:19 pm

    Marilyn, thanks for your coverage and thoughts on the festival. I don’t feel the need to chime in with much here, since others have already said much of what I would have added (especially with regards to aesthetics being intrinsically tied to all the other aspects of a film, inseparable from even cultural readings). But just some passing notes.

    1) Screeners do not make a festival. That’s what I told the festival publicist after I was offered a general pass. (“No thanks!”) They’re ok for “previewing”, but most filmmakers I talk to are horrified to have their films viewed or reviewed based on DVD viewings. The compromise is that local reviewers without the resource to travel to places like Cannes will have to rely on DVDs to do any kind of advance coverage of a festival. Still, how useful is a consumer guide if the basis for the reviews are copies with watermarks, timecodes and bad digital compression?… This is a purist point of view, but it’s one that I feel is important to maintain.

    2) An interesting fact, which may offer a more cogent viewpoint about the festival’s unadventurous programming (at the very least with regards to the absence of the avant-garde and retrospectives): 40% of their annual operating budget relies on ticket revenues.

    3) If I’m a snob — and I feel the word carries connotations from cultural journalists of precisely the ilk that Marilyn often productively opposes on her blog — then so are the people who run the Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Anaheim, Santa Fe, Austin, Minneapolis, Vancouver and Miami film festivals. I cite all of these places because their programming is substantially more risky, informed and representative of world cinema trends than CIFF’s and they’re located in cities that are not nearly as big, economically significant or culturally sophisticated as Chicago. UNCLE BOONMEE actually showed in Milwaukee before it showed here — that should tell you a little bit about how the international sales company behind the film feels about CIFF’s importance!

    Also, I was delighted to read that Philadelphia audiences will be treated to the new Godard film, but that Michael Kutza apparently feels that it’s too baffling and elitist a movie experience to project here. (Not too worry: savvy Chicago cinephiles are burning dozens of copies of the DVD that was released in France — another potential ticket-buying audience that CIFF completely misses out on.)

    4) Marilyn, here is a question you pose and don’t directly answer: “But are they snobs who can’t find value in anything that isn’t difficult or trendy?” You give a general response about how films help us to understand other parts of the world, but you bring in no specific evidence to support the snob factor. Therefore your theoretical snob is a straw man. This is unfair. I like Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann as well as JACKASS 3D, Sam Raimi films, Tarantino, and last year I even wrote fair and accessible considerations (no strict aesthetic readings) of such middlebrow films as THE BLIND SIDE and SLUMDOG MILLOINAIRE. The popular aspects of film culture are worthwhile and not something to be ignored or disparaged. If demanding more creative and diverse programming — like showing experimental videos being made in the Philippines, or more African films, as even you suggest — is snobbery, well, then, call me a snob.

    Another unfair statement (because it doesn’t seem directed at anyone in particular): “Yet, I can imagine the snobs touting [UNCLE BOONMEE] without understanding it in the least”

    Does that include me? I wrote about Weerasethakul’s first feature when it showed at Conversations at the Edge in 2002 (the film festival ignored it), and I was even organizing to interview him but we couldn’t align our schedules (I still remember the funny voicemails that Apichatpong left me in my office at the Block Cinema). Since then I have avidly supported and shown his films to people who are not cinephiles — I even took a group of seven or eight people to see SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY at the festival in 2006, and then went for drinks and had a long discussion about the film at the Duke of Perth after… Is this an example of snobbery? The festival doesn’t really facilitate these discussions, so we have to create them ourselves (something that you smartly advocate for in your piece). Why doesn’t the festival ask Patrick Friel, who programmed Weerasethakul’s first student short when he was still attending the School of the Art Institute, to come introduce the screenings of UNCLE BOONMEE?
    How about Patrick? Is he one of these snobs? He knows the work pretty intimately, and has supported the artist even before he became “trendy” (though I have my doubts that Weerasethakul can really be considered “trendy”).

    So who are you talking about, Marilyn? I know you mean well — and I’d really like to understand your viewpoint a little bit better –, but this sort of anti-snob, anti-elite discourse doesn’t feel directed at anyone in particular. Especially since most of us “film people” — who write about, program and teach films as professionals — advocate so damn hard for artists like Weerasethakul, who are routinely dismissed by the anti-snob, anti-elite populist critics. It’s precisely because of our active engagement with these filmmakers that we have come to *understand* them, to be able to defend them, teach them, write about them, and program them. And it’s an active fight, because the international resources for these films to be made and shown is in risk of drying up every time a populist critic with no sense of film history writes a poisonous review or ignores the work. The critics writing on the film in Cannes were not gentle. Our perception is a bit filtered, but most of the responses were hostile. If I can make a hyper-speculation: out of the 4000 journalists who attend Cannes, maybe 50-100 were actually advocates for Weersasethakul. The rest just found themselves obligatorily covering the film because it won the Palm. So whose discourse is this? The mainstream press would like to believe that they are the owners of taste — that Woody Allen, Mike Leigh, Iñarritu, Danny Boyle, etcetera represent cinematic sophistication and rigor. Aren’t they the elitist ones, the snobs for not wanting to open themselves up to more experimental artists?

    Just sayin’.

  • Gabe Klinger spoke:
    23rd/10/2010 to 12:58 pm

    Would like to add one thing…

    All perspective and nuance is lost when you express that the people who are advocating for the kind of films that, it seems, you would like to see at CIFF (“revelatory of the new possibilities of cinema”) are annoying and distasteful. Wow.

    You say CIFF doesn’t “get [you]”, that it makes no effort to understand the dynamics of your website and doesn’t value you. Yet most of the ire of your piece seems directed at theoretical snobs such as myself (and other unnamed Chicago cinephiles) who would like to start a productive discussion. YET you paint us as hip poseurs who hide behind “trendy” films and have no understanding of the films themselves. These are potshots, plain and simple.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/10/2010 to 5:42 pm

    Gabe – I do not consider you to be one of the snobs, even though you have taken what I’ve said as a direct attack on you and Patrick Friel by extension, which just seems weird to me. I understand why you would think that because I had reservations about your statements on taste. My issue with your interview dawned on me slowly, only insofar as you said that there was nothing on the CIFF schedule that you felt was worth seeing, or perhaps only as compared to what else was in town, but I don’t know for sure. I feel that if you hadn’t already seen Uncle Boonmee and Certified Copy, you would not have made that statement – regardless, there were some worthwhile films at CIFF, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I don’t know how you determine that a film is important. I gave my definition of such films and my bias toward narrative, something that I think gets short-shrift among academics. Regardless, the possibilities of the open-source documentary Problema certainly does merit discussion in all cinephile communities. Indeed, if you followed my coverage from last year, I thanked you for cluing me to The Sky, The Earth, and The Rain, which I probably would not have seen otherwise and am very glad I did. I take your opinion seriously, especially as my first tutor on Brazilian film.

    The people I am thinking of are people I have run into at press screenings and regular screenings throughout the year. In the case of one critic, I was completely appalled by his behavior at a press screening (and those of his critic companions) and wondered how I could possibly take his criticism seriously (and he is a well-known critic who does a lot of panels) when I heard his juvenile display of snobbishness. Other people include at least one friend of mine with whom I cannot reach a meeting of the minds on movies because of his extreme formalist approach that discounts a great many films that a more omnivorous cinephile like myself would like. If there is ire in this piece, it is directed at the localized, parochial attitude of the CIFF, particularly its smug founder.

    As for many (not all) mainstream critics, I have no use for most of them. They are the shills of capitalism and work for a paycheck, not for the greater good of cinema in general. They aren’t snobs – they’re lackeys. And in general, the anti-intellectualism that seems to be going around the world is a reverse snobbery that takes shots at me, too, even though I can find value in a certain sector of commercial product =- not enough for almost any of the people with whom I work, despite knowing I have a film blog, to ask me for film recommendations – something my fellow bloggers complain they are always asked.

    As for screeners, I have to depend on them to provide the coverage I find appropriate and satisfying to me and my readers. I do a lot of pre-festival coverage, as well as work a full-time job. They aren’t the best way to see a film, no doubt, and I planned to see some films I had only viewed on screeners on the big screen – sadly, many of them were already sold-out. It’s either the screener or no coverage at all. I can’t afford to buy tickets to everything I want to see, nor do I have the time to see it all and then write up multiple films in one night. I don’t do capsules.

    I’m sorry you misunderstood my intentions and hope this helps clear things up.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    25th/10/2010 to 1:21 pm

    This stands as a monumental thread and comment section.

    Still, I am rather disappointed at some of the contentions made by Mr. Klinger. He speaks here of “potshots” but in all honesty I only see his own in this regard. The entire thrust and spirit of Marilyn’s magisterial essay is to celebrate cinema, while posing some constructive suggestions for reform. No more, no less.

  • Gabe Klinger spoke:
    26th/10/2010 to 7:28 pm

    With apologies to Mr Juliano, the point was not to take as a personal attack Marilyn’s piece — which speaks productively on several issues — but to illuminate a flaw in how Marilyn creates an argument against a certain snob culture without clearly defining it or supporting with evidence (i.e. a link to one of these snob’s articles). That one might misinterpret this as a personal, knee-jerk attack is precisely my point. Sorry to insist on the idea, but it’s creating a straw man if you don’t offer any evidence. (Marilyn has now made it clearer what she meant, and I appreciate the further elucidation.) And I don’t think this is me making a potshot at anyone, but just trying to further engage in an important discussion.

    And to be clear, I did not say in the interview that there weren’t any films of worth in the festival. I merely mentioned that, because I thought there were more interesting films being shown elsewhere, that I personally would not be spending any time at CIFF. That’s much different than what you claim that I said. Obviously, if Ciff were the only game in town, I would happily make time for it. But I devoted my energies to other prospects.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/10/2010 to 7:54 pm

    Gabe – I’m glad you came back to engage in clarification of these points. I will admit that I was in a very angry and emotional state when I wrote this for reasons beyond the film festival. Indeed, I was very unhappy with a panel of scientists I had listened to that night who were unconcerned with the negative unintended consequences of some of their discoveries and yet felt they were in a good position to not only do their research but also to make moral judgments about it. Indeed, scientists have a rather poor track record as ethicists. To me, this was the epitome of a hermetic environment and made me think of the individuals I’ve met whose devotion to a more rarified cinema extends to active insults regarding the concerns of the “little people” and their “entertainments.” I don’t wish to link to these individuals because I don’t want to start a war on this relatively quiet site (and that’s how I like it), but I have shared a name with you in private and there are others who are practically professional provocateurs with condescending attitudes, and they are well known to most film fans. For my own tastes, I have major problems with Glenn Kenny and Armond White, though I recognize they fill a need for others.

    And thank you for clarifying your statement about not spending time at CIFF. It was not clear to me whether you were being comparative or dismissive, which I offered above. Now I do understand that you were being comparative. We all must make choices with our time. Despite my dissatisfactions with CIFF, I haven’t the opportunity to travel to other festivals and find CIFF invaluable, even if it is only to show me the best of the world’s commercial cinema. And I do think the possibilities of open-source cinema is something CIFF has been on top of, showing Sita Sings the Blues and Problema before anyone else in the area.

  • Gabe Klinger spoke:
    28th/10/2010 to 9:51 am

    Marilyn, it seems, based on comments of yours that I found while reading Sam Juliano’s blog, that you are highly suspicious of me or highly suspicious in general. Because it took me three days to reply (I’m traveling overseas at the moment), you felt I was blowing you off and wouldn’t pay attention here and that I don’t read your blog. (that’s an unfair and unproductive assumption, and it’s not true since I think your blog has many merits). You also say that I believe I’m the owner of taste, and mr juliano says I’m a Klingon or some such silliness. Ok, guys … We’ve reached the threshold of serious discussion and veered into something else entirely. I won’t comment anymore except to say thatthe emotional and angry place that sometimes thrusts your work, Marilyn, also leads to confusion and some suspicion.. and borders on disenfranchising a few people in the process. Someone once told me that to make an omelette you must break a few eggs. Fair enough. But we’re not on opposite sides here, and our energies could and should be better spent on various other subjects. And in the spirit of comradarie and the goodwill of a meeting (Godard’s definition of cinema) let’s return to a serious and cordial discussion on film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/10/2010 to 10:06 am

    Fair enough. I didn’t ask for a fight when writing the above and was surprised when I got into one. But please own your own “assertive” tendencies as well. I wasn’t the only one who thought you were being personally defensive.

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    4th/11/2010 to 5:33 pm

    This is such a fascinating thread, primarily since — due to my blog hitting its two-year anniversary — I’m debating whether to apply to the Online Film Critics Society. Some of what I write plays out as criticism, yet I don’t see myself as a critic.

    Criticism has an aura of Mystification about it, fetishizing (to one degree or another) the totality of the product. As someone who worked in the Industry, the Mystification doesn’t exist, and I tend to approach a movie as an intersection of labor and technology. The things I write about are generally tangential or sometimes non-essential issues to the majority of critics.

    Film production, like all professions, is a distinct work culture with deep self-referential anthropological signs and signifiers. In my writing, I defend that the backstory of a film is equally as hallucinatory as the cinema-viewing experience; truth is stranger than fiction as the saying goes. And backstory — the hazards and happenstance of production — is not just an additive quality, but a door of perception to seeing integral factors in how and why a film was formed and completed.

    I generally analyze and historicize the work culture of the film industry when I write about movies. Is that the same as criticism??

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/11/2010 to 11:27 pm

    Doug – I haven’t noticed that tendency in your writing too much, but perhaps I’ve been reading the wrong things. Personally, I agree with you about the backstory and have found some interesting facts in the making of films that completely impinge on the totality, as you put it. For example, Michael Apted talked about Enigma, and how Kate Winslet’s pregnancy and the fact of there being Dutch financing created a difficult shoot, including having to film some scenes in Holland. Completely unnecessary to the story, and delayed an already difficult shoot around a sick star. Did any of this show up on the screen? I can’t say, but listening to Apted’s agonizing tale of making this film did parallel the agony of one of the characters – sleep-deprived and sick – as well as the tense situation of trying to crack the German code during WWII. Including such depth and detail is the height of “criticism” in my book.

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