The World Changes!

Chris Fujiwara

At this traditional time for looking back on what was done, or what was lost, during the year about to end, my mind is drawn back irresistably to two events in the world of cinema. One is the change from film prints to digital files as the standard format for film projection — an epoch-defining change that has long been threatened and is now all but accomplished in much of the world. The second big event of 2012 was the rediscovery of the late Japanese director Somai Shinji. These two events can be thought of in relation to each other.

As incoming Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I insisted on bringing Somai’s passionate and formally startling films to Edinburgh. Previous Somai retrospectives had taken place at the Jeonju International Film Festival and at Tokyo FILMeX. Edinburgh’s was the first European retrospective of Somai’s films (it has been followed already by retrospectives in Nantes and Paris). At the 2012 Edinburgh festival, the large majority of films were shown from digital media, but the entire Somai retrospective (all 13 of the director’s films) was shown from film prints. The retrospective would not have been possible in an all-digital environment.

When reflecting on epochal changes in cinema, Somai is a significant filmmaker to consider. He started in the film industry in the 1970s and began directing in the 1980s. Those two decades saw the breakdown of major-studio filmmaking and the rise of independent cinema, developments that were mirrored in Somai’s films, which often deal with children and adolescents who become freed from adult authority. Somai’s work was bound to his own time, as his generation, and the generations coming after his, experienced it in common, and Somai himself was a direct link between the glorious past of cinema and its volatile and fragmented contemporary situation. This was why I wanted to show his films in 2012.

The grand forms of cinema, when the cinema had grand forms, were explicitly communal and communitarian: think of the films of Charles Chaplin (Modern Times), Jean Renoir (La grande illusion), Roberto Rossellini (Paisà), and King Vidor (The Crowd). Another grand form was represented by the vision of democracy in films made by immigrants to the United States and by immigrants’ sons: Fritz Lang (Fury), Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey), Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest), Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder). A third grand form was the ideal of movement, and of a human relation to space, in the great Soviet films of such directors Vsevolod Pudovkin, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and Boris Barnet. Other grand forms could be found in the Japanese cinema during the two decades following the end of World War Two, in Indian cinema in the twenty years after independence, and so on.

In these great forms, cinema declared itself an art form that was addressed to and experienced by a large audience in a theater and that drew its subjects and its characters from this audience. This classical cinema remains the mythical model for what cinema is. But when we encounter cinema today, it is still within the forms of that classical cinema that we encounter it? Is the dominant idea of cinema still one that is derived from those grand forms?

These questions seem more essential than the questions immediately raised by the change from film to digital. Over time, people have gotten used to the idea that a film can be something other than a projection of a film print on a screen in a darkened cinema at a prearranged time. A film could also be broadcast and seen at home on TV: this became, for generations of people, the most common way of seeing films. Instead of a film print, a film could be contained on a videotape or on a DVD. Recently, films have come to exist as digital files that can be downloaded and watched on computer screens, phones, and other digital devices. Just as the material format of films has changed, so has the material form of the screen, and with these changes, people’s sense of what a film is, and of what the experience of cinema is, must, one imagines, have also changed.

Obviously it’s impossible to consider this change without reflecting on another feature of our contemporary condition: the decline of nation and national identity as the determinant forms for community. Community is today defined increasingly on a basis that is not merely transnational, but that can properly be called universal. And it is on this basis that the film festival, especially the “international film festival,” can claim to be a significant contemporary form of community, one based on the principle of otherness.

The cinema always designates another space: an off-screen space. Without off-screen space, no cinema. What is the documentary film if not the encounter with an outside, such that the outside remains outside and is not domesticated but is allowed to continue its existence off-screen? In the fiction film, too, this essential exteriority exists, and it could almost be said that the definition of a good fiction filmmaker is one who respects the privacy of his characters, their right to go on existing somewhere away from the gaze of the camera. (The cinema is opposed to mere spectacle because the cinema is porous, whereas the spectacle is total. The spectacle can tolerate no “off” but demands the transmutation of everything into instantly consumable image.)

A definition of the function of the film festival might be this: to enable people to share the off-screen, the exterior, the not-oneself, the undoing of oneself. The festival serves to remind people that we do not make films alone, we do not watch them alone, and we do not think about them alone. The festival has a powerful role to play in representing the conquest, or the defeat, of isolation.

Consider one of the great filmic allegories of the conquest of solitude: The Crowd by King Vidor, in which the hero, from an initially assumed false position of superiority over his fellow men, comes to recognize himself as a member of a group, specifically a crowd of movie spectators, and to accept in this the realization of a destiny. Perhaps it’s the same destiny as that which French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes as “that way of destining ourselves in common that we call a politics.” The crowd of spectators in Vidor’s film is also reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s affirmation, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that in the age of cinema, “any man might even find himself part of a work of art.” In the same year as The Crowd, 1928, Vidor made another film, Show People, which is nothing else but a demonstration of this possibility: a person emerging from the crowd to enter the cinema and become a star.

With the wide distribution of digital video cameras across the social space, we are all constantly being filmed, about to be filmed, or else we are filming or about to film. So we are living amid the realization of Benjamin’s prophecy. But this ubiquity of the digital moving image, is it still cinema? Or is it not rather another form of the so-called death of cinema? No doubt. However, the cinema has been called dead, dying, or in danger of dying so many times that one may assume that its mortality is an indispensable part of the myth of cinema. And here is the justification of festivals — their grand mission, their reason for being: cinema needs to be kept alive, preserved from death. Festivals fulfill this function by staging, again and again, the gathering of a community of cinema.

But if festivals in fact have this function, are we not forced to admit that this community has already ceased to exist, that the festival is only an annual reunion of ghosts, that the ever more insistent and numerous presence of film festivals, together with the increasing industry of publications and conferences devoted to discussing them, is merely another sign of the death of cinema?

The answer to these questions lies, again, in the particular relationship festivals have with the contemporary. The festival may make itself in the image of a certain cinema; it may represent a certain kind of filmmaking practice or critical practice, or a certain way of reading film history or reading contemporary cinema. But the great strength of the film festival may be the absence of a cultural program, just as the power of the Occupy movement perhaps lies in that for which it has been most criticized: the absence of a political program. To the perennial question that festival programmers hear from journalists and sponsors, “What are your themes?”, the festival could well answer that its role is not to impose themes, but to find them, to expose itself to the exteriority of an actual filmmaking practice that it does not seek to preprogram. In this sense, every film has the potential to define the festival where it screens. And this possibility lies at the heart of the communal nature of film.

Cinematic community should be envisioned not as a set of prescriptions for what cinema must be, much less as a lost communion to be lamented or recovered, but as an opening to the otherness of all cinema, including, especially, the films that are yet to be made. Praising Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque française, Jean-Luc Godard said that Langlois believed that “certainly films should be screened, but they also should be made.” According to Godard, the work of the Cinémathèque française “was primarily an incitation to make films.”

The importance of festivals, and of retrospectives such as that of Somai Shinji in 2012, lies in their power as an impetus for making new films and reflecting on the historical situation in which we find ourselves. Acts that are virtually forbidden, as Godard says in his text on cinematheques, because “if one knows how to tell one’s own history, then… the world changes!” And why should such knowledge be less attainable when films are shown from digital media rather than from film prints?

* The Korean translation of this column was included in Magazine F (No.8) published on 31st January in 2013.