Infinite Fest is a monthly column by festival programmer and film critic Eric Allen Hatch, author of the recent “Why I Am Hopeful” article for Filmmaker Magazine, tackling the state of cinema as expressed by North American film festivals.
Cinephilia is a subculture, and we need to represent it that way. I’m not asking you to wear tattered garments held together by safety pins, or accessorize clocks as necklaces. We don’t even need to stop trusting anyone over 30 (a lucky thing for me, BTW—and, I assume, most people reading this). But we do need to more aggressively filter cynical corporate product marketed to us—and more effectively proselytize for the authentic experiences that make film an art form rather than merely an industry.
This cultural moment offers an abundance of that authenticity. Returning home from a week at Toronto International Film Festival, an annual pilgrimage for two decades, followed directly by another week in Maine for Camden International Film Festival, which I was attending for the first time, my cinephilic thermometer is running hotter than ever. As any good film festival should, both TIFF and CIFF fired my imagination with a fresh crop of films and film voices. But more than any prior year, 2018 has me excited about the potential for transformation and growth in audiences—and year-round engagement thereof.
One can’t say masterpieces aren’t being made in 2018 after seeing the partially 3D, fully ecstatic Long Day’s Journey into Night. Director Bi Gan’s stunner of a debut Kaili Blues (released in 2015, although its initial impact is still landing in the U.S.) offered a complex cocktail stirred with lingering flavors of Tsai Ming-liang and Wong Kar-wai, and this second feature offers perhaps the most revolutionary proof since Syndromes and a Century that slow cinema can deliver transcendent thrills as well as meditative pleasures. No one navigates cinematic space like Bi Gan, and his use of time—not just in duration, but also in terms of rippling distortions and outright disruptions of how we experience it—elevates him into an advanced class alongside Tsai, Linklater, Resnais, and Lynch. Kino Lorber has acquired this masterwork, as well as Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s sly and winning Diamantino. In a TIFF Midnight Madness section that also included The Predator mere days ahead of its theatrical release, it was invigorating to find in the same slate an intimate, exploratory Portuguese surrealist comedy that honored both Pasonlini and Bunuel, and reminded me of recent wonder The Ornithologist in its intuitive tonal shifts between sweetness and transgression.
Significantly, the TIFF film generating the most buzz after A Star Is Born came from Claire Denis. Her English-language sci-fi triumph High Life, snapped up during the festival by A24 and therefore likely to hit some multiplexes in the U.S., gives us the gift of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers addressing a dramatically larger audience without insulting their intelligence or dumbing down her own film language. A space-traveling, sperm-culling Juliette Binoche doubles down on Denis (after their excellent Let the Sunshine In, which just left U.S. theaters weeks ago) in what has the potential to become her most iconic—not to mention, if I have any say in it, most memed—role. And while icons from Burt Lancaster to George Clooney have in the past pivoted to use their star power to advance what they see as quality cinema, no American leading man has done more in role choices to boost contemporary auteurist cinema than Robert Pattinson—here given a handy assist by André Benjamin (aka the legendary rapper André 3000).
My 20th TIFF was also my first attending as press. This year felt pleasantly adventurous from minute one, making the budgetary choice to take an all-night, no-sleep bus from Baltimore to Toronto rather than a flight. To my surprise, nights spent on a couch rather than in a hotel bed not only took me back to my early D.I.Y. film-fest years, but helped optimize my experience dramatically. Crashing in a cozy Queen Street flat shared by a rotating cast of committed young cinemaniacs for whom Harun Farocki and Jodie Mack rather than Venom and Thanos are household names, and whose idea of unwinding after a long day of film-festing was to stream some Eisenstein, my between-film conversations offered a level of film discourse rarely encountered here in Baltimore. And while celebrity-spotting has become a core selling point of TIFF for many, I counted myself lucky that my closest equivalent came as two friends tried, unfortunately to no avail, to meet up with Béla Tarr at the opening-night party to discuss filming an interview. Even if TIFF, with their condo tower cum home venue the Lightbox, has grown into a behemoth many old-school Torontonians no longer recognize as their own, the city offers daily reminders of the enriching impact decades of year-round world-cinema access can have on a community’s film literacy.
And at every step, TIFF 2018 reassured me that I can still carve out a deep-cut lineup of world cinema within a festival whose public-facing surface sometimes feels like an Entertainment Tonight broadcast. Wang Bing’s Dead Souls, an eight-hour document of the horrors endured by elderly survivors of Chinese re-education camps, had a self-selectingly modest audience given its workday-long running time. As with a film by Lav Diaz or Tarr, a certain soldier-of-cinema camaraderie floated in the air amongst the 40 or so of us who sat together in the darkness from 9 in the morning until 6 at night—and he temporal investment it requires seems structured to ensure no viewer will ever forget its subjects’ harrowing remembrances. One of the freshest narrative films on offer, Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young, a coming-of-age story set in Chile during the return to democracy of 1990, is the kind of movie that leaves no doubt from its first images that you’re in the hands of a filmmaker rather than just a storyteller. While a very different animal than either Miguel Gomes’ Tabu or Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, I felt a similar rush watching it, the sense that these artists offer something new to us not on the backs of any technological innovation, but through a combination of small but inspired artistic choices that have been available to filmmakers for many moons.
I jumped from festival to festival back-to-back, flying from TIFF to Boston and then boarding a 10-seat puddle-hopper for a mercifully smooth and therefore exhilarating sunset flight along the scenic coast of Maine to Camden International Film Festival (CIFF). In quaint environs reminiscent of The Trouble With Harry, the festival offered a rigorous documentary lineup to full and enthusiastic houses. As with TIFF, CIFF’s efforts to program more work by women and prioritize diversity of all kinds in its visiting filmmakers and press were noticed and appreciated—perhaps even more dramatically in Maine than in Toronto, already one of the world’s most multicultural cities. CIFF also prides itself on its support of emerging filmmakers through funding, development programs, and master classes, and in a community that seems to skew demographically towards older white retirees, the sizable contingent of young and diverse film-lovers and -makers on campus was exciting.
My bubble threatened to burst one afternoon as I sipped my damn fine cup of coffee at Rock City, an employee-owned cafe I was pleased to find across the street from the beautiful Strand Theatre (est. 1923) in Rockland, Maine (CIFF takes place across three neighboring small towns: Camden, Rockland, and Rockport). Two older, affluently dressed woman with CIFF programs in hand and tsks on their lips expressed displeasure with a film they’d seen as they passed me. “If this is the experimental direction [emphasis theirs] this festival is headed, they can say goodbye to my support,” exclaimed one. In retrospect, the little snatches of conversation I overheard suggests they may have taken in Gabrielle Brady’s fantastic Island of the Hungry Ghosts, a revelatory doc whose patient and compassionate eye balances footage of the massive crab migrations along Christmas Island with heartbreaking sessions between refugees detained there and the trauma counselor who tries to offer them emotional healing in a safe space.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts ended up inching out the daring, challenging, and timely embedded-in-Syria Of Fathers and Sons as my favorite film at CIFF, not to mention my favorite documentary seen anywhere since Shevaun Mizrahi’s quietly essential Distant Constellation. And so it pushed my buttons not only to have the word experimental yet again be misused as shorthand for “bad and weird” (read: “outside my experience and challenging”) but also to seemingly hear it applied derisively to such a beautifully crafted film pushing the poetic capabilities of documentary form forward.
But this bump proved short-lived, as every subsequent CIFF conversation I was privy to conveyed appreciation that such a special documentary festival (worthy of comparison to my gold standard, True/False) took place in their small community; and, when critical of a film, did so from an engaged, informed, and respectful place (and it was cool to subsequently meet attendees across the age spectrum who vouched enthusiastically for the Hungry Ghosts).
Which zooms me out to the larger issue of the day: You can never please them all, but I believe we can (re-)build a film (sub-)culture where more audience members than not are more excited by an experimental/challenging direction than a complacent/pat one.
How? “If you build it, they will come” is no longer working for a lot us. But what if we gave “if you build young, everyone will come” a try?
In Baltimore, in most enterprises but especially the arts, young people lead. Whether it’s the music venue The Crown, the gallery Open Space, the mezcal bar Clavel, the coffee-shop/radical bookstore Red Emma’s, or the art-house cinema The Charles, which enjoyed decades of primarily young and broke bohemian patrons before pivoting to cater primarily to the elder monied set, it’s always been an instance of young and in-the-trenches, subculture-invested people cultivating a vibrant space before first the yuppies and later the seniors and suburbs notice it. The art house, stubbornly and to its detriment, hasn’t operated this way for decades. Think of our subculture as never having had its Nirvana (the band) or Public Enemy (the band) moment, but instead continually placing all its eggs in the classic-rock basket, chasing the spending habits of Baby Boomers as they grow older and move further and further into the ‘burbs. Which is what led us to this Fugazi (the military slang word meaning fucked-up situation) moment to begin with.
Now, in addition to lots of constructive discussion about the state of film culture generated by my "Why I Am Hopeful" piece for Filmmaker, it seems to have broadcast the unintended message that I view the elderly core of art-house attendees as the enemy. Not exactly. It’s absolutely true that I use the Best Exotic Marigold Hotels, Leisure Seekers, and To Rome With Loves of our world as shorthand for what’s wrong with the art-house today; and equally true that I see senior-aged couples talking through movies in their living-room voices as an exponentially more prevalent problem in theatergoing than millennial cellphone use. But I don’t think the box-office receipts of Marigold Hotels represent seniors letting us down, they represent us letting down seniors. If lazy lines are being drawn to suggest a progression, for instance, from Truffaut films to white-haired colonial-comedy truffles rather than from Truffaut to Hong Sang-soo, that originates in distribution and exhibition first and foremost—and raises yet another flag that we need to reconfigure how we as a group discuss and (ugh) brand contemporary film culture.
Whether you land yay or nay on A24 (I’m emphatically on Team Yay), they’re showing us the way in the branding department. Through trailers, social media, and other marketing tools, we have a clear sense of their identity and creative mission, and understand how films as different as Moonlight, First Reformed, Hereditary, and now High Life fall under that umbrella. This likely results in teenagers choosing films solely based on the A24 logo the way I bought Dischord and Def Jam records (err, tapes) in high school; if they’re releasing it, I figured, there’s a high probability I’ll like it. Granted, A24 likely has deeper pockets at their disposal than many entities, but others of differing resources that have excelled at branding include Oscilloscope, Criterion, Factory 25, and my hosts here at MUBI (who, as I write this, offer films as different as Bruce McDonald’s apocalyptic-horror entertainment Pontypool and several Kevin Jerome Everson’s observational docs for streaming in the U.S., all presented with ancillary materials and interfaces that demonstrate compellingly how they are all “MUBI films”).
With Mandy slaying it at the box office and High Life cumming soon, can we think about the practical steps necessary to rebuild film culture with a young, bohemian core? Can we, for instance, talk more loudly about how boutique distributor KimStim, with the explosive Alan Clarke-meets-Tarkovsky Winter Brothers and now the aforementioned Too Late to Die Young, has championed two of the most exciting films of recent memory—films that hip young audiences would love, if they only knew about them, and could only find a theater showing them? Can we give new audiences as strong and exciting a sense of what a Kino, Cinema Guild, or Strand film feels like as they have for A24? Can we have them awaiting Arbelos’ latest restoration the way they might a new Numero Group box set? Since Grasshopper, the heroes who brought out Kaili Blues and the innovative Human Surge last year, has picked up Dead Souls, can we convince audiences to take an eight-hour plunge? Can we build audiences for slow cinema, immersive docs, and essay films the way they’ve been built for noise, black-metal, and ambient music?
Yes. Of course, I don’t have all the answers. But I know accomplishing this will have something to do with all of us who care about film culture taking a lesson from basically every other mass-market art form and imagining millennials instead of Baby Boomers when they acquire, market, exhibit, review, and discuss films. This doesn’t mean dumbing anything down. This means shifts in posters, typography, trailers, print materials, and logos. It means larger street teams. It means tote bags, t-shirts, hoodies, zines, and new kinds of merch. It means podcasts. It means embracing polls, gifs, memes, and emojis in promoting and reacting to films online—not as a substitute for deeper engagement, but as an appetizer for it. It means established art houses taking more programming risks, and new microcinemas stepping up to pick up any slack—and effectively communicating how their programming mission differs. It means recruiting board members and PR, development, and accounting people who understand not just their business, but also our very specific corner of the film game. It might even mean lowering the ticket prices for truly independent films to meet the budget of 20-somethings reeling from the effects of our late-capitalism dystopia. Most of all, it means prioritizing diversity every step of the way.
Again, seeking young audiences does not mean excluding the older set; they will also come. Not a day passes that I don’t think about an older couple I observed a few months back outside Baltimore’s aforementioned mezcal bar and taqueria Clavel after being turned away. Clavel spread in popularity from hipsters to yuppies on Tinder dates to citywide appeal in a matter of weeks after opening, something quite rare here, and during peak hours can have a very daunting wait (it’s worth it; give your number to the host and get a drink down the street). Back to the couple: walking slowly, speaking gently and holding hands, the man quietly said to the woman, “It looks very nice in there, and the food smells very good. I didn’t know it would be so popular, but maybe they’ll have a table for us another night. We’ll go somewhere else tonight, but we’ll come back.” The sad but tender look they exchanged as they headed back into the night, gently stroking each other’s hands, touched me as much as anything in Make Way for Tomorrow. I love them. And even if I don’t think they’d dig Mandy, I’d be thrilled to sell them a ticket to Long Day’s Journey into Night, High Life, or Too Late to Die Young.
They want to go where the kids go. And the kids? As ever, the kids are more than alright. They’re just bored by art-house mediocrity, and sick of us trying to steer them towards bullshit instead of the real thing.