I have decided to follow film.
For more than fifteen years I worked as a film critic for the Austrian daily Die Presse–a dream job that had fallen into the lap of a film-obsessed youngster. I cannot remember exactly when I was bitten by the film bug–having grown up in a small town in Upper Austria, whose only cinema had closed down before I was even born, it must have been a TV experience: comedy shorts by Laurel & Hardy, Pat & Patachon or Buster Keaton, Hatari! by Howard Hawks, Intolerance by D.W. Griffith or House of Usher by Roger Corman are early memory imprints, but I can no longer tell which came first. I also do remember being taken to a cinema showing a recent Disney animation in a nearby town by my parents as a kid, but what has stayed with me are only the Donald Duck shorts showing before the feature–and the feeling of entering the magic world of larger-than-life images, my fascination probably intensified by the lack of easy access. Occasional trips to adjacent cities notwithstanding–I think I saw Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West five times, because it was the one classic to be regularly rescreened in the provinces–, I had to spend most of my teenage years obsessing over TV schedules and film guides to discover the history of cinema. Until I graduated, went to Vienna to study physics … and got sucked into a world of rich cinematic offerings. By the time I was finishing my studies, I spent more time at screenings–especially at The Austrian Film Museum–than at the university and had started to write for various websites. A bunch of these early reviews, including quite a few that are now embarrassing to me, can still be found at allesfilm.
Still, I was lucky enough to be hired by Die Presse, allowing me to follow film instead of pursuing a physics career. Starting out as third-string reviewer, I was even more lucky and became the paper’s main critic within a few years. Eager to explore more than the field of current releases in Austria, I expanded in other directions as well: Writing the program notes for the Austrian Fim Museum and contributing to books, magazines and websites–often in English, which for better or worse has become the lingua franca of cinema discussion in the era of the Internet (one of the reasons this blog will be in English, although occasionally subjects may come up where German makes more sense). Some of these–like my long-standing association with Cinema Scope Magazine–will continue. As will the curator-critic-association with my friends Olaf Möller and Barbara Wurm, known as The Ferroni Brigade–whose origins and intentions are explained in a series of posts that can be found at MUBI.
Yet the times have changed. This introduction is hardly the place for an in-depth analysis–but this blog will be a place to discuss some of these developments more closely in the future. Still, to touch briefly on the two main points:
– The ongoing crisis of print media in the face of the world wide web has led to a marketing-driven mainstream mono-culture, in which film is mostly discussed from all possible other viewpoints: box office, alleged innovations (which on closer inspection turn out to be another pretty old hat), or the undying zeitgeist approach–recently taken apart by David Bordwell in one of his brilliant blogs–and other forms of opinionated statements that are based on many things except an understanding of film. One of the fallacies of the current mainstream media devolution is that the opinion-leader approach still holds water. But in the age of internet opinions abound in such multitude, that they have become an almost useless quantity. What is needed is a stance and substance–a type of writing that has mostly moved to the internet now as well, although it can be difficult to find in the mass of options. This blog will try to make contributions on both counts, adding pointers to relevant sites and articles to the posts. One of the reasons I left my old job behind is the impression that knowledge of film was more and more seen as a hindrance than a necessity by the powers-that-be. On this blog I want to move in the opposite direction.
– And then there’s the problem with film itself. Despite our continuing, undiscriminating use of the word, during the last decade the digital changeover has mostly eliminated film–usually we watch files, whether as DCP in a cinema or on DVDs and streams at home. Or, as a friend of mine said about his work in the programming committee for one of the major festivals in Europe: “I no longer watch movies, I watch links!” But don’t fear that this will turn into a rant against progress–I am not against digital per se, and current cinema will be on the agenda as well, though I prefer to call it most recent film history (another subject for future elaboration). The problem is elsewhere: The digital trend threatens to eliminate analogue film–it has become increasingly difficult to obtain and even make actual film prints, i.e. the artworks in their original state. But because the movies are regarded as entertainment or industry rather than art, this has been insufficiently acknowledged, although counter-movements are on their way, be it the invaluable savefilm campaign, input from material-conscious directors like Quentin Tarantino, or the encouraging success of the Film Ferrania Kickstarter campaign. As with such quality-conscious movements as slow food over fast food or LPs over CDs, people will hopefully realize what is sacrificed in the name of progress, the very nature of analogue cinema itself, beautifully described in this helpful overview in the New Republic as something “organic: The texture of film is perfectly random. It’s hard to get that same randomness in a digital form. It’s too perfect.” Imagine a museum, which instead of showcasing the original paintings, just presents monitors with (too-perfect) digital reproductions, and the outcry that would cause. With film, this awareness is still sadly lacking. But it’s not too late.
By now, many theaters and cinematheques–even some of the most prestigious ones–have succumbed to the digital onslaught, at least partially. By now, even some of the most famous classics of film history are not necessarily visible in their original form, but as digital ersatz–unless you make an effort. The Austrian Film Museum still does, vehemently–which is one reason why I have joined its program department. I have decided to follow film.
In my new job, I keep making discoveries reinforcing my long-held belief that the surface of film history has only been scratched so far–somewhat understandably, since it’s an endless field. But we are now also moving into an era during which sizeable parts of film history will disappear: Every technical changeover has led to the loss of films, or at least of their visibility. As Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes likes to say: “It will be like with silent film all over again: a huge part of cinema will be lost.” (The great lie that everything is available on the web tends to overshadow this insight: The correct statement would be that never before so much film history has been accessible so easily–but will, say, a digital copy of a videotape of a film otherwise no longer available, really do?). At this paradoxical point in time, it is even more necessary than ever to find out more about film, both as a material medium and an art form, enshrouded in myths and half-truths that need to be scrutinized. That is the intention of following film: To share big surprises, but also joyful little finds–like this recently unearthed video of Chuck Jones at the Filmmuseum (for there can never be enough Chuck Jones).
[vimeo 95425148 w=500 h=275]
For obvious reasons, most of the time this blog will be closely connected to my work at the Film Museum, and as I find out more about different fields, I hope to embark on illuminating lesser known aspects of the work with film, from its archival aspects to the slippery nature of the film object itself–after all, every print is unique, something easily forgotten in a time when digital copies reinforce the belief in identical reproduction. But for now, it will start with a tribute to one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema: Not quite conicidentally, I hereby declare a John Ford month, with a series of Ford-related items to pop up in the next weeks–but it will not be Ford-only. After all, if you start to move beyond the surface of film history, you discover amazing connections. Which ones? Please come back to find out: After all, that sense of excitement about following film and discovering its true histories is what this blog wants to communicate.