Saturday, April 18, 2009

Smart Film Panel Talks About New "Waves" -- of movies, distribution and other topics

From left: Kovarova, Vanco, Jensen, Peña, Scott, Almozini
and Hernandez
; photo by Yusuf Sayman

Putting together a good film panel -- like a good party -- depends quite a bit on whom you choose as your guests. Last night's sterling example came via the panel's moderator and program curator Irena Kovarova, the Czech Film Center representative here in New York City and herself an independent film programmer. Kovarova corraled a diverse group whose intelligence, wit and love of film, coupled with their ability to do terrific work in their "day jobs," resulted in a most interesting and enjoyable evening titled Disappearing Act: European Cinema from New Wave to New Wave. Taking place in the auditorium of the Czech Center at Bohemian National Hall, 321 East 73rd Street, New York, the program proved a full 90 minutes of pay-attention fun.

(If you'd like to watch the complete hour-and-fifteen-minute video with sound and visuals of the entire program plus Q&A, Ms Kovarova has kindly provded same: Just click here.)

On the panel were Richard Peña (director of the New York Film Festival, program director of the FSLC and professor of film at Columbia University), A.O. Scott (film critic for The New York Times), Jytte Jensen (curator, department of film, MoMA), John Vanco (vice president and general manger of the IFC Center), Florence Almozini (program director of BAMcinématek) and Eugene Hernandez (editor-in-chief and co-founder of The evening got started a bit tardily -- which was fine with me, as I arrived late -- but immediately took off. Highlights (as this interpreter saw them, at least) follow:

Ms Kovarova began with having the panel take a stab at defining what these "new waves" -- whether Romanian, French, Slovenian or Czech -- actually were, turning the program over first to Mr. Peña, who suggested that perhaps good-old-fashioned marketing concepts were involved in christening any group of movies from anywhere in particular under a common rubric of "new wave." Indeed, from the French Nouvelle Vague onwards, the concept has worked rather well. Peña also mentioned earlier "waves" such as Italian neo-realism of the 40s and German expressionism of the 20s (although the latter never really coalesced, he explained, because so many of those directors left so quickly for Hollywood). Other waves included that of Iran, China (and its "fifth generation") and the Czech new wave that heralded the end of Stalinism.

Mr. Scott suggested in his mild manner that the use of "new wave" as a description was not simply a marketing technique. While any such description should not be taken as gospel, the Times reviewer noted, it often made a handy guide that film buffs might find useful.

Kovarova suggested this description could act as a double-edged sword, and Ms. Jensen agreed but insisted that this was perfectly OK because, since it is so difficult to entice people to see cinema from other cultures, these "waves," particularly the older ones, can help draw attention to the newer variety. "They can show us the route," she offered.

Mr. Hernandez brought up the idea of thinking about the very definition of criticism and asked why critics look for these connections that seem to result in the "wave" theory.

"Yes, these are just buzz words," Scott admitted, "but they are a way to connect. He then offered up the buzz word he seems to have coined in his recent Times article on neo-neo-realism, which, another panelist pointed out, appeared to have sent The New Yorker's Richard Brody into an unhappy state.

From left: Jensen, Peña and Scott; photo by Yusuf Sayman

"A movement becomes a movement only when it transcends its national boundaries," or at least I think that was how Ms Jensen stated it, noting how a wave from one country can influence a filmmaker from another. Her example was Roy Andersson, who credits the Czech new wave for some of his inspiration. (Mr. Andersson, by the way, made one of TrustMovies' favorite films: Songs from the Second Floor. If you have not seen it, do.)

The IFC's John Vanco talked about the difficulty of getting a foreign film to its proper audience, telling the story of how, when one of the recent Romanian New Wave movies --- 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days -- made its Cannes debut, everyone loved it but no one could figure out how to market it. Yet the movie went on the be a foreign language arthouse hit, while another Romanian movie -- California Dreamin' -- though well-received, didn't make the same grade.

Ms Kovarova mentioned another foreign film -- the unusual docmentary Czech Dream -- that also, while eminently worthwhile, failed to click with arthouse audiences.

BAMcinématek's Ms. Almozini told us about the difficulties of programming and getting it right: presenting the films that need to be seen and at the same time corraling a decent audience. Explaining that Brooklyn has proven a fertile location for her venue, the program director did say that, these days, the idea of forking over $12 for most audiences means that you'd better give them something they will like.

"Don't blame the audience," insisted Peña. "Blame the era from Reagan through the latest Bush." He then mentioned a quote from right-wing culture czar William Bennett, something to the effect that, "When I was young I used to go to those foreign films from directors like Ingmar Bergman. But thank god I grew out of it." This attitude, so prevalent over the past 30 years, noted Peña, has not helped interest most mainstream Americans in other cultures - or their films.

Ms Jensen told us about MoMA's encouraging experience of showing foreign-language films to high-school-age audiences. "Initially," she explained, "60 per cent of these kids were really frightened about whether they would be able to handle viewing a film and reading subtitles simultaneously. But after the experience, a huge percentage of them enjoyed it and said they would do it again."

Regarding the blame game, Mr. Hernandez pointed out that it has been 25 years since Stranger than Paradise made its theatrical debut and helped created a market for the alternative film. But now, Hernandez worried, that market has developed into an audience that thinks it is viewing an alternative film when it sees Juno or Napoleon Dynamite. Peña agreed and suggested that American independent film has cut heavily into the market for foreign-language films.

So have the new technologies, noted Mr. Vanco. "We don't know yet how all these -- home video to on-demand and streaming -- will finally shake out. But I have to believe that there will still be a place for theatrical viewing." Mr. Peña wondered about that, suspecting there will be a huge decrease over the coming years in theatrical venues.

What about the category of the undistributed film, asked Ms. Kovarova? Mr. Hernandez offered that indieWire is working on bettering its annual list of worthy films still seeking distribution. "I find it almost impossible," he told us, "to look at film through the eyes of a marketing person. I just don't know how they do it!"

Post-panel, Scott (left) and Vanco shake on it; photo by Yusuf Sayman.

Around this time, Kovarova opened up the program for a Q&A, and many good questions were asked and then tossed about by the panelists -- from globalization and the seeming loss of national film identities to new models for distribution and the long- and short-range effects these may have. Audience member Mark Lipsky (President of Gigantic Releasing, the company that simultaneously opened theatrically and streamed the well-received documentary Must Read After My Death) told us that Gigantic intends to open up its releasing facilities to anyone who wants to make use of it -- an interesting possibility, I would think, for some of these so-far undistributed foreign and independent movies.

The final question was given to me to ask of the panel, and I may have blown it by blathering on too long. My question was why -- at this time of the worst economic downturn in over 75 years, and with many distributors of foreign and independent films closing up shop over the past year or two -- is there such a glut of new foreign and independent films being released every single week: often between 6 and 12 of these? It's beginning to seem like a golden age for foreign films, independents and documentaries -- as bizarre as this appears. The panelists seemed to feel that this is due to all the new technologies for both theatrical and home viewing. Whatever: Foreign-language films opening over the past few weeks have included Gomorrah, Shall We Kiss, The Country Teacher, Paris 36, Tulpan, Sin Nombre, Oblivion, Song of Sparrows, Tokyo Sonata and Tokyo! -- to name a few. This week we got Lemon Tree and Sleep Dealer. And next week? One of the great films of this still new century: Il Divo!

Are we blessed, or what?

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