As David Bordwell had to cancel his visit to Il Cinema Ritrovato, the festival had to recruit one of its other guests to fill the empty seat at the final debate in the Cinephilia Rediscovered series. Fortunately, plenty of cinephile professionals made the trip to Bologna. Film and media scholar Henry Jenkins was found willing to take part in this sitting, which, as the festival brochure promised, would focus on American film criticism. Jenkins, who currently teaches at the University of South California, is perhaps chiefly known for his well-received book on the anarchism of the American film comedies of the 1930s, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (Columbia University Press, 1992). The panel discussion united him with Dave Kehr, one of America’s leading film critics, who currently authors a weekly column on new DVD releases for The New York Times and maintains the highly fascinating blog Reports from the Lost Continent of Cinephilia. Moreover, last year he published a collection of reviews from his days as the Chicago Reader’s film critic, called When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade (published by the University of Chicago Press). These unambiguously titled publications already slightly reveal the position he would take during the debate. I wondered how solidly Kehr, whose lucid analyses I admire, would be able to underpin his cinephiliac pessimism.
Kehr began his answer to moderator Roy Menarini’s habitual opening question about transformed manifestations of cinephilia with what he declared a cliché, stating that “this is the best of times, and this is the worst of times” (Referring to the famous opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – Ed.). As many of their colleagues earlier this week, both debaters acknowledged that contemporary film culture is characterised by a broader availability of films and writing. At the same time, the outlets for both are narrowing, or have at least become less public (revival houses disappear, being replaced by online communities and DVDs, in depth film criticism has migrated from widely read newspapers to specialised blogs etc.). In this context, Kehr briefly touched upon the deplorable state of cinephilia on television when he hyperbolically stated that out of today’s “approximately 35,000” television channels, only one is devoted to black and white films. He thereby echoed the concerns of Jim Hoberman, who admitted having received a major part of his education by watching films on television – Kehr recollected how he, in the pre-video-era, would set his alarm clock at 3 a.m. in order to watch Von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, sitting in the audience, joined the discussion by asking Kehr’s and Jenkins’ opinion on the urgency of canon formation. Stirring up a debate that had been touched upon in previous session as well, Rosenbaum emphasised academia’s ambiguous relation towards canon formation, implicitly building its own canon while often ignoring it does so. While Jenkins encouraged Rosenbaum’s demand for alternative canons, Kehr remarked that even familiarity with the traditional canon has become shallow among college students. While Kehr complained about the indifference of film students (recalling undergraduates who hadn’t even heard of Griffith or Hawks) and the responsibility of universities to impart their film students with a basic understanding of film history, my thoughts drifted to my own student days. Back then, I was surprised to notice how, in two different classes on the history of film style, one professor used Hawks’s His Girl Friday as the prime example of skilful continuity staging (evidently based on Bordwell’s analysis in Figures Traced in Light), while the other used the same film to illustrate (although not very convincingly) his idea of an incompetent use of mise-en-scène. Constructing a canon implies making choices, and every choice does entail neglecting certain other possibilities, but when lecturing an audience that isn’t able or willing to get a grip on the classics, rejecting Hawks’ staging strategies in lesson two is not the way to go.
Kehr directed his criticism at another institution that is burdened with the task of stimulating the recognition of canonical and non-canonical films. He pointed out that (particularly American) film festivals have increasingly moved away from their initial mission of introducing new artists to the audience. Instead, according to Kehr, film festivals as those in Toronto (TIFF) or New York (NYFF) have become nothing more than marketing tools for (big) film studios, red carpet shows providing them a platform to launch their Oscar campaigns – case in point is The Artist, which successfully played at festivals a week prior to its opening. Somewhere in the back of the auditorium, Scott Foundas, associate programmer of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which hosts the New York Film Festival, and a former film critic for LA Weeklyand The Village Voice himself, attempted to legitimise the politics of his festival. At that point, however, Kehr had already efficiently made his point. Although he perhaps deliberately exaggerated his charges, he rightly denounced the self-legitimising events that many festivals threaten to become. In a pertinent piece he wrote for The New York Times after the NYFF’s 2009 edition, A.O. Scott already warned for “festivalism”, the self-centered approach that threatens to take over the festival circuit:
“The current New York Film Festival produces more fatigue than shock, and seems governed less by a sense of adventure than by academic duty and confirmation bias. How do we know this festival has the best films in the world? Because all the other festivals agree. It’s a nonstop party, as long as we follow the party line.”