1st October, 2020
Dear Cecilia, Marcelo, Pablo and colleagues,
I hope that you are all doing all right.
Your invitation to send a reflection on the future of cinema got me thinking about how hard it often seems right now to move beyond the present. Perhaps I can begin by saying that, although different aspects of the future of cinema concern me, the future of film production does not. This is because of how we have seen artists throughout history create great art in the midst of difficult or meager conditions. Filmmakers may not be able to make the films they want to make, or to make their desired films on the terms for which they had hoped. But many films, including good and great ones, will still continue to be made.
I hold more concern for the futures of film exhibition and preservation, and for the consequences that their outcomes will have on film programming. In illustration, I can give examples of two ongoing developments in São Paulo, which is the largest city in South America and one of the continent’s most vibrant cultural centres, in addition to my current home:
- Theatres here began closing their doors in response to the pandemic in mid-March, such that the last physical screening I attended was on 15th March. (For whatever it’s worth, that was a 35mm screening of José Mojica Marins’ last feature, Embodiment of Evil, which was presented at the Cinemateca Brasileira in tribute to the recently deceased horror auteur.) I write to you now at the end of September, with the spaces still closed and exhibitors waiting for authorisation to reopen literally months after they began to receive false hopes of such permission from the city’s current mayor. This is the longest that I have gone in more than 25 years without watching a film in a theatre, and the wait is guaranteed to continue through at least mid-October, when the Prefecture will next pronounce on whether cinemas, museums and stage theatres will be allowed to return to functioning as bars, restaurants, shopping malls and gyms already have been. The governing logic seems to be that public activities in which I and others once routinely engaged on multiple days of the week (sometimes multiple times in one day) are in fact extraordinary public health and safety hazards deserving of extraordinary penalties and control. Estimates have been made that more than a third of movie theatres here will never reopen. And as for the theatres that will reopen, a question remains unanswered: which films are they going to show?
- The Cinemateca Brasileira is South America’s largest film archive, and a public institution that has continually suffered from the effects of an administrative crisis begun in 2013 while a leftist federal government was in power. Earlier this year, ostensibly in response to the economic stress of the pandemic, Brazil’s acting rightist federal government cut off institutional funding entirely. Months later, this government announced a goal of transferring control of the Cinemateca to an intermediate managing body to be named, after which were fired every one of the workers, whose salaries had already gone months unpaid. As of this writing, they await the formal announcement of plans for their former place of employment, as well as the possibility of being rehired by new administrators. And, in the meantime (from what I can see from outside), the building itself sits essentially abandoned, with literally hundreds of thousands of items crucial to Brazilian and global film history sitting beyond access. (A more detailed explanation of the Cinemateca’s recent situation can be found here.)
In a time of so much uncertainty, it seems unsurprising that most Brazilian film festivals and a number of cultural centres have claimed the path of certainty by moving their film programming entirely online. While the gesture to remain connected and engaged with an audience has been admirable and often beautiful throughout diverse forms of execution, these organisations have also tended to stress the positives of accessibility and democratisation of content while not discussing the real and significant shortcomings of home viewing in relation to the theatrical experience. We can consider, for instance, how the image quality of a high-resolution file played in streaming (even assuming that one’s Internet connection is good) consistently pales in comparison to that of a good DCP. The possibilities for absorbing and understanding a film’s soundtrack are often even more impoverished, since most home theatres aren’t equipped to emulate theatrical sound. And, of course, the pleasurable warmth of the mere flickering of a 35mm, 16mm or Super 8 print can’t ever be substituted by the same work’s digital equivalent at home.
I suspect that these disparities are not talked about so much partly due to a generalised feeling of “It is what it is”, with many people accepting the current situation (with varying degrees, yes, of resistance and complaints) due to a belief that they have no other choice. But I also understand that many people don’t actually miss public theatres, and that the predominance of home viewing had been coming for some time. This is not to say that Netflix and lower-profile streaming platforms are the monsters that they are often made out to be, since they often realise their potential to provide compelling, adventurous and authorial media content for people who would not have access to it otherwise. I raise this issue, rather, with the glum sensation that the idea of the world of art hovering at one’s fingertips is something market-driven, and therefore ultimately the enemy of individual thought or expression. I sense a profound difference between the situation of a person who lives a far distance from repertory theatres and watches films on a computer with the hope of someday seeing them projected on theatre screens and that of a person who watches films at home with the satisfaction of having already achieved his or her best possible viewing conditions. The first scenario, for me, contains a discontent innately tied to the stimulation of dreams and imagination, while the second contains a pleasure bound up with the stimulus of material accumulation.
I write with a mixture of nostalgia and bitterness knowing that I have often been the first kind of person that I describe and that I fear our ostensibly COVID-induced moment could push me towards becoming the second. I confess as well that, as I recall the many trips I’ve taken to places like the Cinemateca Brasileira to watch films projected, I think more about things that I once considered to be ancillary pleasures than about the films themselves: interesting sights and sounds that I encountered on the rides to and from the theatre, conversations that I had with people I met there, pleasant meals out that I had before or afterwards. These were all things that immeasurably enriched my experiences of the films. Each time I went out, the whole night became cinema.
I want to say that such nights are not possible in São Paulo today, but it feels truer to me, instead, to say that I haven’t yet figured out how to make them possible again. I do understand that one of the goals of totalitarian leaders throughout history has been to find ways to ban mass gatherings in the interest of quelling dissent, and it therefore strikes me as coherent to believe that authoritarian forces want theatres closed today so that we will be forced into watching films in isolated fashion at home. And it strikes me further that people bothered by this will have to find some ways to resist.
Good luck for us all, and abrazos,
15th March, 2021
Dear Michelle and colleagues at Senses of Cinema,
I hope that you are doing all right.
I would like to begin by thanking you for the invitation to publish the original English-language version of my piece in the new edition of your wonderful journal, which has always struck me as being ahead of the curve in its efforts to build virtual bridges among diverse groups of artists and cinephiles. When I sent my letter to our Argentinian colleagues back in October, I strove to situate myself within in a specific moment of writing, with the hope of leaving for future-tense readers some kind of historical register. As our current moment, quite obviously, is another, I thought that I would add some notes to update you on how things here have unfolded over the past months:
I am still in São Paulo, and haven’t left the state since January of last year. The potential reopening to which I alluded in fact took place in mid-October, at which point my wife Mariana and I happily attended a retrospective of Krzystof Kieślowski’s fiction features, all of which screened at Reserva Cultural on restored DCPs. If memory serves, we saw five screenings, and there were no more than five audience members in attendance at any of them. São Paulo’s alternative film circuit travelled a sporadic course over the next several months (including in terms of the hours at which theatres were allowed to present films and the occasional forced cancellations of weekend shows), with some wonderful happenings in the process. The new restoration of 8 ½ that played at CineSesc in honour of Fellini’s centennial offered the relief of a friendship’s long-delayed renewal. I hope to always treasure the dark reds and browns and the ethereal blues and greens from the wonderfully preserved 35mm prints of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Gorgon, respectively, that showed in the Hammer Studios retrospective at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. And I believe that I will long recall the amazement I felt at seeing more than 30 people (all dutifully masked, all respectful of each other’s spaces) gathered in a public screening room on a Saturday afternoon to watch a digital presentation of Double Indemnity. These events all took place; there are registers and physical evidence of them; and to anyone that says that they should not have occurred, I can only say, “Too late”.
No public screenings are occurring in SP (city or state) at this moment, however, due to the facts that we entered Phase Red on March 5th in response to local and national rises in infections and deaths, and that all so-called non-essential businesses will remain closed until at least April. I hear and read comments from many people (including folks that work with the arts) that say this is a good thing. My own sensation is that each person is entitled to his or her feelings, and that, when I myself encounter the words “dangerous” and “irresponsible” used in reference to cinema, I cannot shake the memory of Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models recoiling with horror as he watches a televised debate about the perils of comic books, with his own art-addicted existence serving as a kind of living proof of them. But I should add that the fears so urgently expressed by people I know – of getting sick, of sickening others – have been irrelevant to my own experiences. Going out to the cinema, in these past months and in times before them, has consistently made me feel better than I was and not worse; and, although I use myself as an example, I am extraordinarily far from alone.
I have passed the recent time at home partly – like many – by diving into online viewing. The month of March has seen another startling explosion of online festivals in Brazil, many more than I can keep track of, including at least two events that showcased preserved and restored older films and at least two devoted to contemporary experimental shorts. This does not count all of the international festivals that have made content available here for online viewing, nor platforms such as MUBI and many more that Martin Scorsese’s Harper’s article did not name. I reread my October comments on the disparities between theatrical and home viewing, and I can respect the views of colleagues that believe I was being unfair. I salute the inexhaustible work being done by online programmers, and of course I believe that there are nice things about digital. Jean Renoir once remarked that he preferred television to cinema because he felt he could communicate with audiences in an intimate and direct way through the small screen, and I sensed something of what I imagine to have been his intended feeling as I recently sat through a home viewing of Eva Giolo’s remarkably luminous and spare film Flowers blooming in our throats, made during Belgium’s lockdown. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this expansive nine minute-long film falls under the arbitrary designation of shorts, a category of cinema that the online sphere has aided in myriad ways (by freeing short works from the necessity of showing in feature-length programs, by making individual films available for multiple viewings, and other pluses). I hope that we can talk better about this in person someday. I also hope and believe, in the meantime, that we can all agree on a basic point: None of us who work with cinema, in any form, on any level, should want for physical theatres to die, which means that work will need to be done in order to keep them alive. There can be both worlds.
At the time that São Paulo’s state governor mandated the new re-closing of cultural spaces, a few important repertory cinemas in particular caught my attention for not having reopened. One of them was the Cinemateca Brasileira, where I saw Embodiment of Evil precisely one year ago. I was part of a small group of protesters and onlookers that stood outside the building last August as representatives of the federal government confiscated the building’s keys until further notice; at the time, there was talk of a public call eventually opening with up to 18 potential administrative bodies (none of whose names are known to me) already demonstrating interest. I would be glad to say that one of them has already taken over. What has happened, instead, is that a longstanding nonprofit organisation called the Sociedade Amigos da Cinemateca (“Society of Friends of the Cinematheque”, or SAC) has tried to step in to administrate the space on an emergency basis until this future body assumes control, but its announced-for-January contract with the federal government has yet to take effect. The building has been closed to the public for more than a year, and I do not know when it will reopen. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the Cinemateca, and I hope to go back to seeing films there soon.
All best for you all in the days ahead,