It’s at least five years too late, but this year’s LFF included a sold out panel discussion on the importance of keeping film – specifically the photochemical medium, rather than the wider art of moving image – alive. Headed up by commercial, art and archive heavyweights Christopher Nolan, Tacita Dean and Alexander Horwath, respectively, the panel preached the virtues of film to a room of exhibitors, practitioners and cinephiles. Showing clips from Nolan, Dean and Peter Kubelka’s works, on film, Creative Director of the BFI, Heather Stewart, intended to dazzle and educate.
Though the presentation and points raised were well argued, one wonders how effective a call to keep photochemical film alive can really be after the roll out of DCI (digital cinema initiatives) has already taken place worldwide. That the medium itself is an art form is, on the one hand, inarguable. Tacita Dean is right in saying, “In the art world, medium cannot be obsolete”, and Christopher Nolan’s array of press-ready quotes received much applause. But, on the other hand, that independent cinemas – especially those that have already signed up to the VPF (virtual print fee) scheme, whereby distributors subsidise the costs of digital equipment with the funds that would previously have gone to freight and print management spending – should be able to insist on film print delivery, is extremely unlikely.
We live now in an attention economy where missing a moment means moving on. The industry, for better or worse, has been discussing the “digital revolution” for the past five to ten years. Alexander Horwath should be applauded for saying, “I believe, as a museum, one the first missions or attempts you make is the best possible approximation of what they produced.” But, representing the Austrian Film Museum or being as famous as Christopher Nolan and Tacita Dean are, means wielding greater influence. Small, independent cinemas that have already removed their film projection equipment simply don’t have this luxury.
Similarly, while the BFI may have enough nitrate to wrap around the whole planet in their archive, too much of our film print history is already lost. Like the destruction of film that occurred after the arrival of sync sound film, thousands of film prints worldwide have already been junked. Such a fate cannot be reversed. Furthermore, as an audience member pointed out, even the BFI, a world leader in film heritage and presentation, has had to show an Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective entirely in digitally remastered format, despite existing film prints in circulation. Though I don’t doubt that there are contractual and studio related reasons behind this decision, what it all boils down to is that photochemical film is now a scarcity and the global cinema industry, for commercial not artistic reasons, cannot trade on that model.
Meanwhile, in the film program, and nominated for Best Film (but losing out to Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier) was a film shot entirely on iPhones: Sean Baker’s brilliantly entertaining Tangerine. The story follows a trans woman sex worker, Sin-Dee Rella, on Christmas Eve in Hollywood, in search of her fiancée and pimp. While the film’s characters are its true triumph, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the technology on which it was filmed. What’s most significant about Tangerine is that the format proves the quality of the content of the film. It isn’t brilliant because it’s shot on iPhones, it’s brilliant because its aesthetic suits its narrative, and the narrative is a new style of fast-paced, melodramatic realism.
Like Tangerine, which premiered at Sundance in January and went into general UK release soon after the LFF screening, the festival program is not determined by world premieres and scarcity. Instead, it’s a celebration of diverse film culture, designed to engage the public in the wider project of developing a cultural interest in film and a habit of cinema-going.
To this end, the program secured a host of films screened and acclaimed at Cannes, Venice and Berlin, including Palm d’Or winner, Dheepan (Jacques Audiard). Also screened were other high profile 2015 films that benefited from months of advance press and only weeks or months ahead of their local UK release, including Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul (Saul Fia), Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, Todd Haynes’s Carol and Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room.
Maddin’s latest, infamously described by Emma Myers in Film Comment as “akin to a brain aneurysm (in a good way)”, 1 was this year’s specially selected title by Sight & Sound. Each year the BFI’s flagship film criticism magazine chooses one outstanding film in the program to spotlight – and wow did it sparkle. Maddin’s latest, a sort of re-imagining of a series of cinema’s “lost films”, was entirely immersive on the UK’s largest screen at the BFI IMAX. Even Maddin, present for an audience Q&A following the film, admitted to being “really curious about watching ‘this thing’ on IMAX.”
Surprised that “a lot of people” stayed, Maddin’s humble and wry wit made the session following the film one of the most enjoyable of the entire festival. Forget cinema, this was stand up. And here, too, we saw an arthouse A-lister tell us that shooting and projecting on film were simply not important to his project. Artistically, as well as commercially, the film was better suited to digital filmmaking, most namely, in this instance, because of how heavily the footage was digitally manipulated.
Exactly what is done to the footage to make it appear as grimy and obfuscating as it is remains a secret. Maddin won’t tell, “It’s a Bro-Jo secret, the brothers Johnson [Evan and Galen], the Bro-Jos, they have a secret pixel cooking recipe.” All he would allude to is that it comes from “abusing software”.
While the virtues of photochemical film persist for the likes of Nolan and Dean, Maddin is clearly championing the new and unique qualities that digital filmmaking and post-production digital manipulation offer. For him, the effect of doctored footage is preferable to analogue film – at least in the content of this specific project. The desired look for a film that is inherently about imagining something that does not exist is best served by a surreal and deliberately doctored aesthetic.
The Forbidden Room also screened under the banner of Experimenta. Like most festivals do, in an effort to assist audiences in their selection, LFF provides overarching categories to indicate genre, aesthetic and tone. With Experimenta, the categorisation, though practical in attracting a specialist audience, also functions as a way of separating what general audiences understand as “artist” and “commercial” film. Pushed to the back of the program and scheduled at the very end of the festival, once the majority of press and industry had already departed, the Experimenta program could easily have been a mini festival all of its own.
Whether or not this is problematic, when experimental cinema is often both abrasive and ghettoised, is uncertain. What it’s not, in the context of the festival’s focus on the medium as an art form, is helpful. Short film programs devoted to celluloid, “The Stuff of Film”, and the processes and ethics of retorting artists’ films, “Writing Women’s Experimental Film History”, took place in the venue’s smaller cinemas and rooms. Though they carried the same theme, they felt far removed from the sold out blockbuster event headlined by Nolan and Dean.
The problem of protecting film, then, is reflected in this inability to effectively integrate the conversation beyond the one major event. Nolan and Dean were keen to put the responsibility for the preservation, protection and exhibition of film into the hands of the audience – if viewers demanded both quality film projection and film print format, they suggested, then exhibitors would have to come up with the goods. And, if that meant that exhibition had suddenly to toughen up to force distribution and production to follow suit, surely it would happen.
But cinema-going, much like the medium of film, has changed drastically over the past five to ten years. Cinemas are under ever-more pressure to “eventise” their screenings or partner up with major festivals. So-called “regular” programming and showmanship have been eclipsed by café culture and “added” or “alternative” content. LFF has itself grown exponentially by what is now its 59th year. Though the major events and screenings still take place at the BFI Southbank, screenings also take place at another 15 venues all across London, including arts venues like the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) and the Tate Modern as well as multiplexes including Odeon Leicester Square and Vue Cinemas in Islington and the West End.
The major change for the festival this year, though, was its use of the brand new Picturehouse Central. Another in the ever expanding, once arthouse, chain of cinemas in the UK, Picturehouse Cinemas opened their new flagship multiplex right in the heart of central London in June this year. Built on the old Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue site in the Trocadero centre, the venue has 1000 seats across its seven screens and served as the major hub for press and industry preview screenings prior to and during the festival’s 12 official days. Fully equipped with state of the art sound equipment, including Dolby Atmos in some auditoriums, and both 70mm and 4K capable projection, Picturehouse Central is already a roaring success. But they still don’t use side masking when the films aren’t in Scope.
Nolan and Dean would have the audience outcry at this presentation faux pas and, on the one hand, they’re absolutely right; it was infuriating if not entirely destructive to see Son of Saul, a film in the actual academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and with a dark colour palette, without its appropriate framing. On the other hand, it’s already been close on five years since cinemas had qualified, trained projectionists on shift. Instead, most cinemas now use fully automated systems.
The demands on cinemas have changed and the aesthetics have followed suit. Johnnie To’s 3D musical satire, Office, though far too heavy-handed and headache-inducing to be truly spectacular, requires a big screen. It also needs an exceptionally bright projector lamp and 7.1 surround sound. The film simply could not be screened, as intended, if the festival only took place in arthouse and independent cinemas with small screens, 2K or film projectors, and an out-dated sound system.
The problem is not that everyone is lacking in appreciation for photochemical film as an artistic medium, and it’s not as simple as just giving up on the medium, either. If this powerful panel – and for all the complex and frustrating issues it spewed forth, it was powerful – had taken place five years earlier (or perhaps as few as four), and was broadcast on a global, not only European stage, then perhaps its effect would be more impacting. As it stands, in the wake of global financial crisis, with the advent of on demand platforms and in an attention economy where there simply isn’t enough time for audiences to keep cinemas as busy as they once were, cinema-going needs to embrace its attributes.
It is for this reason that LFF is a fantastic film festival. It showcases 240 films from 72 countries, some of which will not receive distribution in the UK. It offers panels, however delayed, on issues that spark conversation. Perhaps, though, most significantly, it promotes the action of cinema-going and an interaction with cultural diversity. For a festival that is far more interested in engaging the general public than it is in catering to press and industry, this is a huge success. The festival is staged by a faction of the BFI, after all, and one of their most central aims is to further audience development.
I think it was MUBI Notebook critic, Adam Cook, who once said to me, “A film festival should be for the public”, and for that, LFF is a shining example.
BFI London Film Festival
7-18 October 2015
Festival website: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff