Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I made an eventful weekend trip to New York for the “Responsibilities of Criticism” seminar/conference at NYU featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. The indefatigable Kevin Lee has documented the sessions at his blog.

I own—and have read—more books by Jonathan than by any other film critic, and given the regularity with which I draw from Adrian’s writings for material on this blog, I should be mailing monthly tuition checks to Melbourne. So it was a rare pleasure to meet and hang out with them both at the conference and off-event, talking cinema non-stop for hours at lunch, dinner, and late-night outings in the Village.

All over, a generous, infectious enthusiasm was circulating this weekend and I’ll remember one funny, touching moment that crystallized it: at the screening of Doomed Love, Adrian slowly and silently raised his fist and punched the air when the opening credits unrolled “Um Filme de Manoel de Oliveira”…

* * *

Living more or less in isolation in cinema-indifferent Buffalo, I constantly yearn for trips to large cities to socialize with cinephile friends. And so it was deeply satisfying to see and spend time with Zach Campbell, Dan Sallitt, Kevin & Cindi, Andrew Grant, Danny Kasman, Steve Erickson. And I was fortunate to make new friends: Paul Fileri, Elena Gorfinkel, Liz Helfgott, Amresh Sinha, Fred Veith. I wish I’d been able to spend more time with Paul Grant and Martin Johnson (organizers of the NYU event), Gabe Klinger, David Pratt-Robson, Dave McDougall, and Drake Stutesman.

I warmly record an inventory of these names here because this is one of those few times when, in a reckless moment, I feel like uprooting myself from my comfortable, tenured life and migrating to some giant metropolis with a teeming cinephile-social life (all the while knowing that I probably never will).

* * *


-- You must read this fabulously epic double post on Renoir's Elena et les hommes by Craig Keller and Andy Rector.

-- Dave Kehr on Georges Méliès in the NYT; and at his blog, remarking on issues raised at the NYU conference. Also: Zach on the conference.

-- New issue of Senses of Cinema.

-- The Auteurs' Notebook is a new site put together by Danny Kasman. In addition to pieces by him, it also features Dan Sallitt, Acquarello, David Pratt-Robson, Dave McDougall, Matthew Swiezynski, and others to come.

-- via Jen: Stan Brakhage's last interview, recorded two months before his death, in The Brooklyn Rail.

-- Two blogs I've been checking recently for upcoming DVD release info: Fin de Cinema and Filmbo's Chick Magnet.

-- At 12th Street Books in the Village, they were selling a trove of books that belonged to Annette Michelson. It was pretty picked over when I got there but I scored a copy of Eisenstein's writings (1922-1934) and Joel Magny's French-language book on Chabrol.

pic: Philippe Garrel’s wonderful J’Entends Plus La Guitare (1991).


Blogger Maya said...

Welcome home, Girish. It sounds like the weekend conference was a wonderful event, no less so for your participation. Thank you for the links to those who wrote it up, which allows us West Coasters to participate vicariously.

March 18, 2008 10:30 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish -- sounds like a rewarding, eventful, inspiring trip. Glad you had a good time, with good folks, and it's nice reading about it here. (I understand partly what you mean about desiring a cinephile social life -- I'm fairly close to L.A. but have yet to discover such a thing outside of a small number of acquaintances, though I suspect this partly has to do with L.A.'s vast wideness more than anything else.)

March 19, 2008 12:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there, Maya and Michael! I hope you've been well.

Paul Fileri and I were talking about this a bit. Despite the huge, democratizing force of the Internet in film culture and film criticism, one should be cautious about getting too utopian and universal when we speak about these things. Geographical constraints are still very much with us. For example, we all have equal access to the film-blogosphere, the opportunities it provides for dynamic interaction, and the discourse it produces, but that is just not true for other critical components of film culture, i.e. (1) actual film screenings; and (2) face-to-face social interaction, both absolutely crucial to being fully and completely part of film culture. There's no getting away from this, I think.

Michael, your example further illustrates the importance of geography. (I've heard a similar account from Doug Cummings.) Los Angeles's geographic dispersal is enough to ensure that many cinephiles don't get to films even though the city offers film screenings and opportunities for social interaction.

I wonder how intra-urban geography differs between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I'm assuming that the screening venues are closer together in SF than LA? Even if the PFA is in Berkeley, it's quite accessible by public transport from SF, if I'm remembering right...

Similarly, it'd be interesting to know how the geographic concentration of screening venues affects film culture for other large cities: Paris, London, Melbourne, Chicago, Berlin, etc.

March 19, 2008 10:39 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I think the question about screening venues and how they enable a film culture is a great one. I've always felt that the sheer concentration of theatres in parts of Paris must have a great impact on how people interact. I remember spending the month of August there once, when so many people clear out, and within a few days I began to recognize and chat with other people, mostly local, taking advantage of that month's retrospectives. It was a little like living in a cinephile village!

In Boston, I don't find that I run into familiar faces very often at all, and I'm often amazed at how few people attend what seem, on the surface, to be enticing screenings (e.g. Mizoguchi at the Museum of Fine Arts), but then again I'm absent from many screenings, too.

March 19, 2008 11:34 AM  
Anonymous davis said...

Girish, I think you're right that face-to-face interaction is important. I know it's one reason we all look forward to festivals like Toronto.

Geography in Los Angeles and San Francisco is drastically different. I (almost) never drive to the PFA, but I do sometimes miss screenings because it's an hour train ride from the middle of SF. But if I stay in town, I can walk to the Roxie, Red Vic, and Castro, take a 10-minute subway ride to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SFMOMA, and several large mutiplexes. The equation changes in different parts of the city, but I feel very connected. (I'll miss it. We're moving to Chicago soon.)

Although I do tend to see the same faces at various screenings -- some I know and some I don't -- we should probably make more time to discuss the films. I enjoyed a recent chat with Maya about Costa on our train ride back from the PFA, for example. More of that!

But the blogosophere is critical, too. It does break down geographical barriers, even if it's not a substitute for face-to-face interaction. DVDs do too. Most of the US is a wasteland when it comes to film distribution. I remember driving with my girlfriend two hours from our 80,000-person college town (West Lafayette, IN) to Chicago to see the Hudsucker Proxy. Sheesh.

March 19, 2008 2:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Gareth -- The Toronto cinephile experience is very much like the one you describe about Paris. In fact, the overwhelming majority of non-current cinema screenings occur in just one theater used by the Cinematheque in the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Rob -- I didn't know about your move to Chicago: best wishes!

The blogosphere, esp. for where I'm located, is like a lifeline for me. The other day I tried to imagine an alternate-reality Internet-less scenario for myself as a cinephile, and simply shivered...

March 19, 2008 2:57 PM  
Anonymous Jim Flannery said...

I see another SFan has chipped in while I was typing this but as he says, local conditions vary, so I'll go ahead & post as-is.

Downtown SF to PFA is a 1/2-hour BART train ride + 12-minute walk; not so bad (I live about 45 minutes west of downtown, so my transit time is roughly 95-105 minutes each way, about the worst case scenario for SF proper; that'd be 40-75 minutes by car, depending on time of day (rush hour ... bad). The Balboa, about as far west as I am, recently gave up its rep schedule for despair of getting people this far out into the fog. The Surf, one of the great rephouses of my youth, suffered the same fate in my neighborhood back in the mid 80s.

Most of SF's arthouses are scattered in the neighborhoods, making some subset hella convenient and the rest vaguely out of the way to any given SFan on public transit (at least one transfer) unless coming from downtown (in which case, max of 20 minutes for most, plus the 1/2 hour of BART from the east bay if necesary) ... we're small but the buses don't do crosstown so well. You can get anywhere in an hour, but can't count on anywhere in less than 45 minutes. (Cut those times in 1/2 by car, adding back 10-15 minutes to look for parking.)

Berkeley's theaters are, aside from PFA, tightly huddled around the BART station -- I think I counted 30 screens within a 5-block radius at one point but there've been some closures since. The arthouse offerings mostly duplicate the ones scattered around SF, so a Berkeley resident is basically a bike ride from everything they need, barring SF's Roxie, MOMA, ATA and Cinematheque, all within a couple blocks of a BART station, the Castro (2 light rail stops from BART) and the Red Vic (about 15 minutes by bus from the closest BART).

There's never been a film that was important enough to me to do what it takes to go to a screening in Palo Alto or San Jose. 60-90 minutes respectively by (hourly) train from downtown SF, train stops coming back at 2230h. One (2hr) bus after that, then, well, a nice freeway overpass will keep the rain off till morning. Drive time respectively 45-70 minutes, depending (see above).

(Yeah, you can drive to San Jose in the time it takes to get crosstown in San Francisco on bus. Aren't space-time discontinuities fun?)

Mill Valley Film Festival, like everything else in Mill Valley, is for People of Privilege. Bus service is designed to keep outsiders out, where they belong, after dark. I haven't made a screening in over 15 years. Maybe 25-40 minutes by car from most places in the northern parts of SF, on the low end of that from Berkeley.

Marin County residents couldn't live generally without a car, so basically reverse those times for them to get to anywhere; they also have one 2-screen arthouse, the Rafael Film Center.

March 19, 2008 3:16 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, that's a good point about social interaction -- I agree that it's simply a necessary component of cinephilia and the film community. You know, in some ways I really love how dispersed L.A. is because of the sheer variety of things here, but you're right about the down side, in spite of the fact that resources, screenings, etc. exist. There are film clubs, as well as revival and repertory theaters. But to go from, say, downtown L.A. to the far west side is an event unto itself, and for many Southern Californians the trip is even further because many of us live outside the concentrated cities here. One week there might be something worth catching downtown at the L.A. County Museum of Art, while another week it's in Beverly Hills, and then another week it's in Santa Monica, none of which are that close to each other. For me, all of these locations are a healthy distance -- plus, there's no predicting the time because of the traffic. For example, on a good day I might get to downtown in 25 minutes; on another day, it might twice that, while a trip to the west side can take 45 minutes or two hours.

The net effect is a parallel dispersal of the film community (though at, say, studio screenings one will often see some of the same individuals). Which is all the more reason why the blogosphere has become so helpful in recent years -- and why it, too, is a necessity. But, even then, the actual physical, present community is important, and, as Rob points out, one reason why TIFF is so wonderful in this regard.

March 19, 2008 5:02 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Rob, this is the first I've heard of your upcoming shift to Chicago as well. You and Lorraine and Iris will be missed. Conversations, such as the one we had on BART returning from Costa, have helped me shape my responses into writing. I've been very grateful for your feedback in recent months.

The sociality of film culture is completely my schtick. Not only the on-line/off-line interactivity, but audience receptions, and--even more importantly for me in recent years--the chance to sit f2f with the moviemakers and movie culture makers themselves, from producers to programmers, publicists to the popcorn makers. Surprisingly, I am rarely lonely as I used to be some years back, and just as surprisingly, the wealth of film sociality has caused me to savor my alone time even more than ever. Writing is a solitary creation but it's nice to punctuate it now and then with conversations with filmbuds.

I think the balance between that creative alone time and film interactivity is key to developing as a film writer.

I really enjoyed Kevin's notes from the criticism seminar on his site. Some neat topics were proposed. I loved the talk about social responsibility, especially to entering the world of the impoverished or marginalized. Reminded me so much of Costa's closed doors.

March 20, 2008 1:03 AM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

I have some experience with how geography shapes our cinephile experience thanks to the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo film festivals which happens a few weeks from each other. In Rio the theatres are scattered troughout the city, while in São Paulo all of them but the cinemateque are on the some street or closer to it, so in a worst case one has to walk 20 minutes between screens, and there's a clear difference about the sense of film community in both festivals.

I agree that one should probably be careful to some extent about getting to utopian about the web or dvds, but I think Dave Kehr's complain come from a very specific experience. My friend Inacio Araujo, who is a brazilian film critic very close in age to Kehr, always joke about how in his early cinephile days he could count with the brazilian cinemateque showing Dreyer's Joana D'arc every week since it was one of the half dozen decent copies of non-brazilian films they owned and he always said that private screenings were almost eexclusive of underground brazilian films (then, of course, he starts to talk about when São Paulo's Japanese neighborhood had 4 theatres that released japanese films and I got back to envy him).

March 20, 2008 1:08 AM  
Anonymous Daniel said...


It was great to see you again in NYC! Thanks a lot for plugging The Auteurs, I hope to attract some great online writers for the project!

Let me tell you though, the kind of unified turnout of the conference and the Doomed Love screening was in my mind a rather rare affair in NYC. Even for such a condensed locale, I think there is a pretty large degree of fragmentation among cinephiles and critics going to films in the city.

March 20, 2008 11:37 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

That's an intriguing comment, Daniel. Makes me all the more appreciative of cine-events or films that have such egalitarian draw.

March 21, 2008 3:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Jim, Michael, Maya, Filipe and Daniel!

Speaking of local film events, Cinematheque Ontario has just announced the line-up for their spring season which begins next week: Josef von Sternberg, New Romanian cinema, limited runs of Garrel's J'entends plus la guitare (just saw this over the weekend and loved it) and the Chinese film, Little Moth.

Next week I'm driving up to George Eastman House for Jean Eustache's Mes petities amoureuses. Also, on their calendar for this Sunday is a tempting double bill of His Girl Friday and Park Row. I've seen both films more than once but neither in a theater.

Spring break has just begun and while I have some major catching up to do (paper-writing, getting the house in order), it should also allow for a little bit of serious movie-watching.

March 21, 2008 10:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr at Kevin's: "As Serge Daney once said — and this was back in the 80s, when VHS was just getting under way — we have the choice today between nostalgia and amnesia. To simply dismiss the 98 percent of American movies that are not available on DVD as irrelevant is, I suppose, one way for younger critics to rationalize their lack of viewing experience, but I am sure that the more curious and intellectually honest among them have long since realized that they are being cheated of a huge part of our cinematic heritage."

March 21, 2008 11:14 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Yet that's the ephemeral risk of any art form. Even something as hard as sculpture can be lost for ages in what my poet friend Phil Cousineau calls "the blue museum" (i.e., the Aegean).

Kehr is sounding a little bit like a Disney curmudgeon to me. We need to be simply, gratefully, thankful for what's provided, even if not everything is provided. We need to simply, gratefully, thankful for the work of programmers, impresarios, mad hatter art house managers, and the championing efforts of critics at, let's say, Film Comment, who call out for distributors.

If the democracy has become absent in exhibition, then the democracy needs to be put back into how film culture is to be shaped in the years to come. There's a Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Personally, I remain simply, gratefully, thankful for all blessings and curses.

March 21, 2008 1:28 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

This is a fatalistic mentality, Michael. You gotta really be spoiled by a wealth of consumer goods to turn off your critical judgement on the system you live in...
If you only indulge whatever is tossed at you, your culture is shaped by the commercial schemes of profit-driven mentalities.
This is effectively a cultural censorship (even if Hollywood doesn't mean it that way like the Soviets did)!
The powers-that-be determine what the population will be subjected to. And since the cinema industry is so expensive that we cannot access a film individually, independently from the professional circuit we can only choose from the pool others have chosen for us.

A sceptic would step back and take a look at the big picture, to figure out what you are being denied.
If you really want to know what the world is producing in terms of cultural goods, you need to look deeper and not let somebody limit what you can see and what you can't.

Isn't it your responsibility as a critic, a film lover, to support cinema liberties, democratic access and artistic freedom?

March 21, 2008 6:35 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Don't be silly. I'm far from fatalistic and you know it. My character has been shaped by sifting power from choice. I thought I had acknowledged the work of critics who champion films that should be in distribution, creative programmers, impresarios, and the whole society of film lovers who in one way or another advocate all those values you're waving around like a tattered flag.

I don't need to have everything go exactly my way in the world of cinema in order to enjoy the world of cinema. Limitations can generate creative alternatives. And there's always the element of surprise.

And as I keep reminding you, I'm not a film critic so--as much as I respect and defer to the responsibilities of critics--that's not my baby. I'm more of the mindset that--if the culture you want is not being produced--then produce it yourself. I'm a writer, first and foremost, and film is just one fulcrum.

March 22, 2008 3:47 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

Girish, I share your sense of academic isolation--Fayetteville, like Buffalo is hardly a metropolis--although I have to envy your ability to get into NYC from time to time.

Sounds like it was a fantastic event.

March 22, 2008 11:18 AM  
Blogger Michael Kerpan said...

Although quite a few interesting films get shown in Boston, there seems to be absolutely no real "live" forum for talking about those films. Luckily for me, my wife and children (all in college) are interested in at least some of the films I like -- otherwise all my discussions would have to take place online. ;~{

March 22, 2008 2:42 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Fayetteville?! As in Arkansas? I used to live in Batesville. Talk about isolated.

March 22, 2008 9:31 PM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

Maya, it's actually Fayetteville, NC, which could be a lot worse. I live about 1.5 hours from Raleigh-Durham, just close enough to make it up for occasional movie nights.

But I've heard stories about Fayetteville, Arkansas.

March 23, 2008 12:40 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Ach, I remember Fayetteville, NC--only town where the real Lafayette visited, or so I remember. It has one arthouse cinema, the Cameo Theater, and they did well enough--saw my first Miyazaki, Howl's Moving Castle, on the big screen.

And I have mixed emotions about the US military, but god bless em for one thing--their military base there allowed the sprouting of dozens of Korean, Thai, Vietnam and Japanese eateries, a handful of which are very good.

March 23, 2008 1:56 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

And North Carolina may be wanting when it comes to film culture (I don't know, I didn't spend enough time exploring all of it), but surely it's at the epicenter of pork barbecue.

March 23, 2008 2:00 AM  
Blogger alsolikelife said...

Carolina barbecue - here here!

Mac's Speed Shop in Charlotte - 3 pounds of meat (half a chicken, pulled pork and the piece de resistance, a half rack of slow cooked baby backs) for $20! I'm amazed I was able to walk away from the place without passing out.

March 23, 2008 11:41 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Well, sounds like I must put Carolina barbecue on my list of foods to experience...

And here's a funny Fayetteville story for you. When I was applying to PhD programs in the US from India, the two best offers of tuition+assistantship packages I received were from SUNY Buffalo and U/Arkansas at Fayetteville. Before I made my decision, I called them both to speak with them. The person in Fayetteville was polite and spoke with a lilting, musical accent but I had no idea what she was saying (me being Indian, she being Southern). So, I figured I should go somewhere where I could speak the local language. :-)

March 23, 2008 3:09 PM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

Noel and others: yes, Carolina barbecue almost makes life in Fayetteville, NC, completely OK. I think you're right about it being the only city named after Lafayette that he actually visited.

The Cameo is a great little theater. The owners are very nice people, and they do bring in some great movies.

March 23, 2008 6:14 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

You know I'm not singling you out there Michael, I'm just deploying (in general terms) the argument brought up by your comment.
And I very well know your culture vastly exceeds DVD availability (so you can't pretend you settle with this catalogue). But imagine that most of what you get to see at Film Festivals never gets distributed or released on DVD...

If you're a creator of culture, you should be even more concerned (than critics) by the visibility of creations regardless for what the industry formats to become the "mainstream reproducible culture for the mass".

I tried to connect this back to the conference topic, but this is not the sole responsibility of critics. It's about the formation, establishment, diffusion and preservation of our culture. And this is the responsibility of society as a whole. We can't let the "free market" decide what should be circulated among the majority and what should be left behind for transitory private circles...

March 23, 2008 7:50 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Hey Chuck. The Cameo Art House--Chris and Nasim, lovely people. They designed the place, it's a beautiful space, with a lobby just made for sipping coffee in, slowly. Seen a lot of great films there.

Sorry, but not a big fan of Fayetteville cue (you do have a Vietnam place there that I'm a huge fan of--everything was good, perfect, wonderful).

I'm partial to the cue in Fuller's in Lumberton. twenty miles south--they cook with wood, or so they say, I believe em. Of Carolina cue, I love Allen and Son in Chapel Hill, Lexington Barbecue in Lexington (there are over twenty restaurants in a town with maybe twenty thousand people), Charlotte's Old Hickory House has great cue PLUS great Brunswick stew (it's rounded out with stale bread for thickener), the late lamented Mitchell's in Wilson is as rich as they come, with chitlins and greens to die for (it broke my heart to learn they closed), the great Wilbur's in Wilson and of course the one and only Skylight Inn in Ayden, run by the late 'Pete' Jones, now by his son if I remember right (short for A Den of Thieves, lovely name).

March 23, 2008 11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 24, 2008 11:07 PM  

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