On the eve of the London Film Festival 2013

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

In many respects, I am certain that what I am about to write will be proven wrong over the next couple of weeks. The London Film Festival (LFF) is about to start, and I am going to write below that cinema is not just dead, but has been for a long time – from a certain point of view, at least. I hope that I shall at the LFF see at least a few films (I cannot afford to go to many) that are formally and thematically interesting. Indeed, on a certain level I have no reason to believe that human genius has come to a close and that humans do not continue to be innovative and ingenious in all fields of endeavour, including filmmaking. But I’d like to outline some concerns nonetheless.

I have a voice that does not carry very well. It is a common experience in restaurants, at shop and kiosk counters, and on the telephone for my interlocutor to say to me something along the lines of ‘I can’t hear you’ – typically in an irritated tone that immediately riles me and which often will lead to me saying something along the lines of ‘well don’t you think you should listen more carefully, then?’ I then often will raise my voice in an exaggerated fashion so that they definitely can hear me – i.e. I basically start shouting at them (or I start doing my version of shouting, which is probably just about audible for them).

Why this anecdote? Well, I am using it as a symptom of something else: namely the fact that the world is not so interested in the low voice, the whisper and the murmur – but really only in the shout, the bang, the loud noise. And having naturally a quiet voice, I find it saddening and infuriating that no one will listen.

Don’t get me wrong; I can perform ‘loud’ both professionally – I am a teacher/lecturer and it is necessary on a certain level to perform ‘loud’ – and socially – I can demand attention as others do, and likely in an equally annoying fashion, especially when inebriated. But forasmuch as I do desire and demand attention, especially when inebriated, I, like many others, also try not unnecessarily to be loud – except when circumstances suit or require it (e.g. during group inebriation).

(This blog is a performance of quiet, too, of course – so bear in mind the fractal of infinite regress that potentially we are entering: is this a ‘loud’ quiet or a ‘quiet’ loud?)

What is true of my personal experience – not only do people not listen to quiet voices, but in fact they find them annoying and are impatient with them (my interlocutors in various places in my daily life) – is perhaps also true of movies.

That is, people have little patience, it seems, with ‘quiet’ movies. With slow movies. With movies that are not immediately recognisable.

What does this have to do with the LFF?

Well, it is not uniquely to do with the way in which the LFF has a large number of gala events revolving around blockbusters (by which I mean large-scale productions, typically featuring well known stars). This is increasingly commonplace at film festivals and it does suggest the encroachment into art house territory of mainstream cinema. Festivals need to hold such events because they attract attention, which in turn attracts audiences, sponsors, and the interest of the media. Nonetheless, that festivals need to do this at all suggests the prevalence of ‘loud’ as the defining ethos of the LFF and other festivals, and ‘loud’ as the defining feature of contemporary society, driven as it is by the storm of hysteria propagated by the media.

Don’t get me wrong; the LFF will also feature many ‘quiet’ films – typically films about poor people from other places on the planet. But there is a sense in which the ‘quiet’ films that one sees are of a kind that has been sanctioned and/or ring-fenced in advance. That is, they are a ‘controlled quiet’ that, by virtue of being controlled, are not necessarily ‘quiet’ at all, since they are ‘quiet’ in the pay of ‘loud’ – or what we might in short term festival films. We might refine our dichotomous quiet/loud analogy here and say that these films belong to one of a small number of vocal pitches or tones that are deemed acceptable; there is not much scope, however, for differences. And while the term festival evokes loudness as probably a defining feature, nonetheless a festival should also be a celebration of difference. Sanctioned/ring-fenced difference is not really difference at all.

Talking with filmmaker colleagues of mine, a common rant against film festivals is the submission process. This is not simply an excuse for me to rant (again) about Withoutabox, the online film festival submission system owned by Amazon, and which sees hundreds of hopeful filmmakers sink large amounts of money into film festival submissions without telling them the honest truth: that maybe one or two per cent of films submitted via this system will make it into the festival in question; that the interns that watch the films submitted may watch two to three minutes of each film submitted, but by no means the whole; that the interns that watch the films may not watch their film at all, the festival instead taking the (substantial sum of) money paid for the submission and – so to speak – ‘running’.

Indeed, the rant against Withoutabox cannot on some levels apply to the LFF at all; they are one of few festivals that does not use Withoutabox (as far as I am aware), and if you are a British filmmaker, it is in fact free to submit your film for consideration. I have no idea who watches films submitted or for how long, but I take it on faith that everything is fair and equal. Although, oddly enough, it remains strange how pretty much all films at the festival have a clear ‘pre-sold’ element to them. That is, the festival is not just thinking about whether a film is good or bad, they’re thinking about how much of a ready-made audience that film already has, about how easy or hard it will be ‘sell’ that film to the general public.

I am going to return to the general public, since they/we are an important aspect in my hopelessness, my sense that cinema has long since been dead. But I would like right now to stick to an issue just raised in connection to Withoutabox. For, filmmakers know these days that they might have two or three minutes in which to convince a festival intern (or a festival director; I am happy to accept that some festival organisers watch every film submitted to them) to accept their movie, and so they commonly ‘frontload’ their film, in effect making it ‘loud’ so that the viewer will continue watching.

But surely wanting to continue watching is the definition of a good film, and why would one accept a film if one did *not* want to continue watching it?

This is on many levels a likely and a useful objection. It helps to raise a couple of points. Firstly, if indeed it is often (likely unpaid) interns who sort through the first rung of film submissions to a festival (and this would include the LFF, regardless of whether one pays to submit a film or not), then – no disrespect to those interns – their tastes most likely reflect their (probably young) age more than they represent the whole filmgoing community. Secondly, and in a related fashion, this means that only certain types of film will be accepted, namely ‘loud’ ones – with ‘loud’ here not being defined by explosions, but by familiar faces (stars), familiar scenarios, familiar locations and/or, in the case of ‘unfamiliar’ faces, scenarios and locations, ones that are ‘familiarly’ unfamiliar, by which I mean to say ‘recognisably exotic’. What is left out, then, are films that are truly different, ones that are, metaphorically speaking, too quiet to be heard. Ones that may be very quiet to begin with – films that are not ‘frontloaded’ – but which potentially could redound in the imagination for years to come, were they given the chance.

But they are not given the chance. Even though they are, like me at the kiosk/on the phone, the client (who we should know nowadays is always wrong, and if he should raise his voice when complaining, then he is obviously being abusive to the poor and not responsible staff member and could face a fine and/or imprisonment, even though bus drivers, to take one example familiar to me, are regularly abusive to their clients, as if now the service provider were the only person who was right), they are chastised for speaking too quietly, as if they were wasting the service provider’s time. And that is all that festivals are – service providers. And makers of different films, like me at the kiosk, are made to feel inferior, incapable, unacceptable as a result of the way in which the service provider/festival is unresponsive to them and/or the way in which the service provider will take their money, but will also make clear that they are really/somehow wasting that service provider’s time.

I sometimes wonder that filmmakers wasting their money on festival submissions would be better advised taking their £50ish submission fee and contacting a school or university that is somewhere within their reach, and using that money to travel to that school or university to present their work to that school or university’s film society (or a film club out in the country, in a small town, in a suburb, in an area of a large city – wherever). This way they might play their film to 10, 20, 30 or 40 people at a time, rather than to a lone festival intern who won’t watch the whole thing.

But this then needs to address the fact that many university film societies themselves just play mainstream fodder in order to attract viewers/people. That is, if I am Jane Filmmaker and I contact a university to show my film, they likely will just ignore me as the festivals do.

To restore some structure to what otherwise might seem to be becoming a rant: the frontloading filmmaker, the festival filmmaker, the mainstream filmmaker, the film festival organiser, the film society organiser, the film festival goer who is not dissatisfied with the service provider – all are guilty of the same logic. And that logic is the cult of the silver screen. It is the belief that you are nobody unless you are cinematic. And this is where the general public must be brought into this blog.

For, so in the grip of cinema are we as a (global) society that many, many (most? all?) people are prepared to go to enormous lengths, perhaps to any lengths, in order to ‘make it’, in order to ‘get into the industry’, in order to become ‘somebody’ by being on or by being connected to the silver screen. This is the cult of celebrity – and it extends beyond cinema itself, though I use cinema as a keyword because cinema is still largely considered the ‘top of the pile’ – even though television and internet celebrity might involve a significantly greater number of viewers.

Everyone is complicit in this system of cinematic logic such that those who are making films to say something unique and different rather than in the interests of pleasing others, those who are making ‘quiet’ films, are inaudible to others. Not only are they inaudible, but people do not want to hear them – not even a student film society that is ludicrously worried that both that no one will turn up to their *free* event, but also that if the audience does not *like* what they show at that free event that somehow this will reflect poorly on them; likewise film festival organisers both put themselves forward as arbiters of taste while also running scared that people won’t like their tastes – as if disappointment were not the most common reaction to most mainstream films, as if people were not actually happy enough with disappointment that the experimental reaching out for new thought that is filmgoing could not sustain greater levels of experimentation with regard to making and programming. And yet, given that films are made by people, not to value original, different, ‘quiet’ films is akin to saying that they do not value the people making those films. Potentially it is against the concept of value that we should take issue; nonetheless, even within a system of value, it is problematic to deem some humans as without value, while others have value because they are ‘loud’ (that is, because they not only conform to, but also set the terms concerning what constitutes value – i.e. they validate themselves and others are complicit in going along with them, in believing their self-validation to be ‘true’ or ‘real’).

But just because people believe the loudest to be the best and thus the quietist the worst, this does not mean that it is so. Everyone has had experiences in which they have a quiet moment to think for themselves. These are not solipsistic moments; most often what happens during these quiet moments is the person thinking or reflecting eventually lets the world consciously into their experience and they get to think about how amazing is a tree, a car, air, the sky, the universe and existence more generally. As humans, we value these moments.

Nonetheless, as humans we are seemingly also bent on destroying these moments and on destroying the possibility for these moments. For, the sheer loudness of the world makes it impossible for us to think. We are bombarded by loud sights and sounds day in day out, and if they do not come from our surroundings (i.e. if we live in the remote countryside), these sights and sounds will nonetheless come crashing into our world via our media (a generation of people who grew up in the countryside and who cannot stand the thought of going back there). In effect, we are killing our capacity to think; we are rewiring our brains such that we would rather put on our iPod headphones and blast musical shit into our brains than listen to what is actually going on around us. Quiet moments of reflection are not solipsistic; the acceptance of a loud world and the putting up around us of a loud wall such that quiet has no place – that is the road to solipsism, and it is the road that humans walk down in growing numbers, traipsing stupidly after the belief that they will become cinematic, that they will ‘make it’, that they will ‘get in’ – with no concern for what is actually around them, for the life that they are leading now.

I like and watch a lot of mainstream films. They are not uniquely bad for you. But they cannot be the only thing. On the eve of the London Film Festival, I take time to reflect on this and related matters – and while I hope to proven wrong, I am concerned that the LFF is more complicit in the culture of loud, in the cult of cinema and of celebrity, than it is in the world of quiet, the world of difference.

If the media, with cinema as their figurehead, are responsible literally for rewiring our brains – for brainwashing us – then this is something that we should take very seriously, indeed. But the battle is not one that can take place outside of cinema – encouraging people simply not to watch films. It is one that is taking place in and on cinema screens. Note how a large number of recent blockbuster movies have involved the use of ‘arty’ directors – from Tim Burton to Sam Raimi, from Ang Lee to Kenneth Branagh. Why the rise of the ‘blockbuster auteur‘? It is because the art house poses a threat to the mainstream; too much quiet, too much quiet time, too much thinking for and – Heaven forbid – expressing of oneself is too much of a threat to a system that requires people to accept their fate by stupidly chasing the carrot on the stick that is cinematic and celebrity culture. And so the way to negate that threat is to get art house directors to become complicit with the mainstream, by making mainstream films.

The rise of the ‘blockbuster auteur‘, then, is an aggressive, combative manoeuvre to negate the art house. To drive the quiet films from art house cinemas and into the fewer screenings that are film festival screenings. And then to drive them from film festival screenings and on to television. And then to drive them from television and on to the internet. And then to drive them from the internet and into oblivion.

This is a war that is raging – the war for our hearts and minds, the war to have a heart and a mind of your own, or to have a heart whose desires and a mind whose thoughts are dictated by the commercial imperatives of cinema and its fellow media. The London Film Festival is a minor battleground in that war, which is ubiquitous and ongoing. Like all wars, what is happening is confusing and confused; people think they are fighting on one side, but in fact are unleashing friendly fire on their fellows. The ideal would be to put down the weapons entirely. But as long as this does not happen, we can only participate in how things unfold. I hope that I am about to see some quiet and different films that help me to think; I am worried that the ones that I see will simply be POWs paraded by a festival that really is wearing the uniform of the loud. Perhaps cinema – a cinema of difference – has long since been dead; it went with a whimper, but no one heard it because they were distracted by the ongoing series of loud bangs.

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