Programming, discussion and racing to the Tree

Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) 2011 USA 138 min

Postcard from Berlin, by Andrew Grant

Cinephilic brothers-in-arms:

Much to chew on here. Will return to matters of cinephilia in a moment, but I wanted to address the issues of criticism that have been raised. While I agree that critics, particularly those that write for online-only outlets, are under pressure to turn in copy while the topic is still “fresh” it’s reached rather ridiculous levels of late, and one only need turn to Cannes coverage for proof, particularly the morning of 16 May, when Malick’s The Tree of Life was unspooled for critics. At 10:05am (CET) Fabrice Leclerc’s review appeared on the L’Express site, even though the film still had about another 30 minutes to go. No idea how that happened. Was he filing from the screening, or did he decide he’d seen enough around the ninety-minute mark?

Regardless, reviews began appearing all over the net within the next few hours. Though I haven’t seen the film (the Berlin press screening is still a few days away) it’s clear that there’s a substantial amount to process, yet that didn’t stop many from filing reviews that were clearly rushed (and unedited), full of half-baked ideas and/or wave-of-the-hand dismissals. One review that appeared in less than two hours after the screening was little more than 1300+ words of seemingly random musings. What’s the point in that? Here’s a work that took nearly forty years to make it to the screen. Doesn’t it deserve something more than knee-jerk criticism? While I ultimately agree with Mathieu that there will always be gems among the trash, it worries me that the current generation of critics will know no other model than the race-to-be-first approach. And quite frankly, who benefits from these flippant reviews, other than site owners who depend on n hits each day?

Though I’m not nearly as well versed in German online film coverage as I am in the US variety, my impression thus far is that critics and bloggers here aren’t in a mad dash to churn out content. But then again, cinema (and cinephilia) on a whole seems to be a far more serious affair over here.

Berlin has no shortage of independent and/or art house theaters, includes dozens of makeshift cinemas in cellars, galleries, courtyards and even private apartments. Local cinephiles are constantly programming mini-festivals and/or retrospectives, and each month the choices as a viewer are overwhelming. Theaters such the Arsenal, Babylon or the Zeughaus Kino (to name but a few) are open to outside programmers, and the curation is, for the most part, top notch. That it’s possible to receive government funding to mount a film series is nothing short of mind-blowing (to this American, at least) and I guess that explains why several critics I’ve met here from prestigious publications are also involved in programming. (At the moment I’m waiting to hear back regarding funding for a series I co-curated with a local critic.)

Berliners are quite adventurous when it comes to film, and I’m often surprised by the turnout at many of these smaller, one-night events. What impresses me the most are the post-screening discussions, which are usually quite intense, and often go on longer than the film itself. With virtually no softball questions, filmgoers here aren’t shy about holding their tongues and their directness has taken me a while to get used to. Film clubs are also quite popular, with weekly or monthly screenings (usually in somebody’s home) followed by riveting conversation. (Wie Deustch ist es?)

I very much like the idea of these real-world activities – curation, distribution, exhibition, etc. – as falling under the cinephilia umbrella. Similarly, I think that even social networking has its place in the cinephile’s world. There’s no escaping the fact that cutting-edge devices combined with higher-speed networks foster solitary viewing habits, and while that might allow us to see more movies in more places (a fact I’m still not entirely comfortable with) I feel it’s important to balance it with genuine interaction, and in this regard I must admit that twitter satisfies the need for quick banter, and a way to connect globally with like-minded souls. No, it shouldn’t ever replace proper criticism and analysis, but it’s an amusing and at times thought-provoking way to engage in bite-size bits of passion for the medium we love.

Sorry for the scattershot nature of the post, but am racing out to catch a rarely-screened 1973 East German adaption of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Vive le cinema!


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