As the pandemic has engendered and enforced a greater degree of virtual community than ever before, the notion of simultaneity has taken on a heightened valence and urgency in the realm of cinema. Driven from movie theaters, many of us have felt socially and culturally isolated, and yet the internet holds the potential for a new temporality: ready access to multiple eras of film history, novel forms of online solidarity and gathering, and a general invitation to conceive alternatives to the conventional synchrony of film community, culture, politics, and industry. To explore these changes, we convened a virtual roundtable on simultaneity to discern the difference(s) in our experiences. What emerged in our participants’ responses and reactions was the recognition of loss as well as opportunity, of the human sanctity of the physical space, and of the Covid era as perhaps simply a culmination of ongoing changes and anxieties.
Nick Davis is Associate Professor of English and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Desiring-Image: Gilles Deleuze and Contemporary Queer Cinema and has written film criticism at nick-davis.comsince 1998.
Marie-Pierre Duhamel is a film curator, programmer, translator, and a scholar in classic and contemporary cinema. She has served as consultant, programmer and coordinator for project workshops in various film festivals, including Venice, Rome, and Locarno.
Diana McCarty is an independent media producer and feminist media activist and founding editor of reboot.fmin Berlin. She is a co-founder of the radio networks radia.fm and 24/3 FM Berlin; of the FACES (faces-I) online community for women; and of the elsehere association.
Abhishek Nilamber is a curator and project manager at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, and creative consultant at Backyard Civilization, Kochi, India. He is the curator of UNITED SCREENS.
Nicolas Rapold, editor, critic (The New York Times, Criterion Collection), and host of The Last Thing I Saw podcast.
This text is edited and abridged from a conversation recorded over Zoom in February 2021.
Nicolas Rapold: To get at the sense of daily lived experience, I want to start by asking how your work feels different in the absence of our usual habits of sharing space and experience?
Diana McCarty: I have been doing online collaboration for many years because sometimes I’ve managed radio remotely, when we don’t have live shows. But whether it’s a class or a workshop, that I’m in or that I’m running, it’s very bizarre not to have the immediate responses of the others in the room. The body language, the ways that people respond, and the shared experience, are all very, very different. I think everyone knows what it’s like if something is boring or something is exciting—the kind of collective feeling that comes out of a space when you’re encountering something. I would say that is a loss. On the other hand, maybe there are other ways of sharing that have become interesting. I think more people see and experience more things than they would have before.
NR: So we lose the simultaneity of sharing a physical space, but we might gain something else in a virtual realm. For example, being able to connect in this way over Zoom.
Marie-Pierre Duhamel: In China, they’ve been doing that for ten years now—chat rooms and other stuff as a collective experience. So first let’s not be too Western-centered. Yesterday I was at film school, physically, for the first time in a year. I agree with Diana about body language, a physical response to things. Even to see one of the students sleeping was great. And it was refreshing to watch some film excerpts together in the dark on a big screen. I was scared to death because it’s a very small screening room without any air. I’m an old lady and I have a 91-year-old mother. So I’m living under the regime of terror that the various governments rightfully or not impose on us.
NR: When we choose instead to watch movies through streaming, are we perhaps able to access cinema in ways that yield a different temporality than normally?
MPD: For decades now, there has been no history of cinema in the sense of the order of time in the cinephile experience. Time is not an issue. In the past, cinephiles, in the traditional, French definition of the word, were obsessed with going to see everything in the order of the history of film. “Let’s start with Griffith and then move along to John Ford.” At the same time, they were discovering their contemporary cinema in theatres, the new releases. The idea of time as history was precise, because we had no other choice. You go to theatres or nothing. It’s been years and years since a relationship of this kind, and history and cinema as a historical object, disappeared in the experience of the cinephiles. I call it the eternal present of the internet. And this is an aspect of simultaneity. The Covid experience has just made people conscious of their own experience of time, the history of cinema, cinema experience, and theatre experience. The consciousness of it, the fact that it’s lived differently in confinement, in lockdown, might be higher than before.
DM: I think a question for me is what you imagine you have access to and what’s available to see. Because if you’re looking at Netflix or the generally available online platforms, what’s available is interesting, but it’s also missing a lot of things. If you’re a young would-be-cinephile, you still have to work to find rare material.
MPD: Yeah, but you just have to know a few more languages than your own. And if you don’t know the languages, you just go to YouTube to look for the original version of the Chinese, Cuban, Filipino film you’re looking for and you’ll find it. I prepared a whole program on Chinese cinema of the 1980s through the internet, through YouTube. Because 200 million people put copies taken from television or piracy or whatever and put them on YouTube.
:: Rosetta (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 1999) [ARP Sélection / Canal+]
Nick Davis: I’m teaching four classes right now at Northwestern and much of it is rooted in the same time period from 1999 and 2001. I’m teaching a class to 270 alumni of the university who are living all over the world, and they need to be able to have the right claims on the film for me to be able to assign it. So I see both the existence of the many places we can be adventurous on the internet, and how remarkably spotty it can be even if you stay within the idiom of commercial studios, even U.S. film. In November I made a syllabus that assigned Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000), but it was actually nowhere to be seen when we got around to watching it in January—suddenly it had departed. With the proliferation of streaming services making land grabs on rights, who owns what changes from day to day and week to week.
But looking at this Y2K [year 2000] time period in the class, I have 18-year-old students, I have 22-years-old students, I have master’s students who are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and I have alumni who are largely in their 50s, 60s and 70s. I have students who say, “I don’t understand, you could go with your friend to the gate [in an airport, pre-9/11]? People thought that was safe?” And I have people who were already in their mid-career and in the middle of life, and thinking about what about today reminds them of the crises of that earlier moment [9/11 and earlier]. Watching Rosetta (Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne, 1999), Bamboozled, or All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999) with all of them, I wish they could all experience each other’s reactions [in the same room], but I still get to be in community with people of such varying identity positions, nationalities, professional context, whatever you want to think about. They’re all bringing such different lenses, and I think that’s something that cinephile culture sometimes misses when you only stay within your peer group or your locality. It’s something I really miss about festivals, which has inspired this way of teaching.
NR: How has the political potential of the physical space been affected by the predominance of a virtual community?
Abhishek Nilamber: Thinking from the perspective of cinephile experience—and I continue to be one—I’m completely missing out on the experience of collectively viewing a film. That’s even if I have access to all the content in the world, and all these VOD platforms grabbing the rights of different films. Cinema happens for me after I’ve watched it and I am talking with someone else about it. It’s like a slow, unfolding experience after I’ve watched cinema. When all this content is available through our screens, I wonder if we as an audience aren’t becoming further atomized and disconnected from the larger purpose of cinema.
At the same time, I have friends in Egypt, and with all of these VOD platforms popping up, they have content which is otherwise banned for public viewing. And the government doesn’t really care if there is an online platform that is hosting controversial films. Because there’s not this community of people coming together to discuss these films, it’s not a threat. They can have the most controversial film on the internet and it would stay in that atomized silo. It would not have the effect that it would have otherwise in the society.
MPD: It is clear to me that I’m speaking from a rich Western country, which is basically democratic, and of course it’s not like this everywhere. But I think that if I’ve been missing what Chinese cinephiles have been missing, it was because festivals were cancelled or could not welcome foreign guests because of the travel limitations last winter. Cinephiles miss the possibility to get together. That was a lot. And I’m not sure if it will be recuperated. And for the Chinese New Year, the cinemas reopened and the crowds rushed into the cinemas. Of course only the commercial blockbusters are still around. It’s a great danger to the kind of cinema that can be found more rarely than others. When a theatre has been closed for a year, what do you think they will program when they re-open? My heart is bleeding when I think of filmmakers, producers, distributors, but mainly actors and filmmakers, who are now on an endless waiting list.
:: La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962) [Argos Films]
NR: Could there be a breakdown in the traditional hierarchy of distribution and the festival calendar? What do we gain through an individualized media experience?
DM: To go back to this notion of the social aspect of a collective screening and the political implication to that, that goes with the economy and what types of cinemas will economically survive. What types of support will be needed for other things to exist and what kinds of public will want that? That’s a class question. What kind of skills do you need to have to be adventurous on the internet?
I always think of what it means to go from hearing the projector to not. Such an important part of my experience of many films was this “krrrrr” sound of the 16mm projector—that you go into this other place. I don’t enjoy watching films on my screen. I have a decent screen, but I don’t remember films the same way when I see them on that screen. That individual experience of watching a film alone versus in companionship—even television is a slightly more socialized media. And this pre-Covid transition into individualized media already has a huge change.
On the other hand, online it’s less about films, and that’s where you get this culture of memes and shorter formats, like YouTube. I think it would be interesting to see what filmmakers are doing in these times of enforced separations and what kind of productions will happen. Because if you want to make something, people will find a way. I would relate this to the radio. Many people have been producing their shows from home with whatever means they have. There is a very clear acoustic aesthetic to Covid in the radio productions that I’ve noticed.
ND: I think there is a factor of generational difference, too, which is reflected to me all the time in working with students. When I would ask them things like “Do you miss going to the movie theatres?”, they say, “I was ten years old when that guy shot everybody at the Batman movie. I don’t go to the movie theatre. I watch things at home.” A lot of my students have grown up not seeing a lot of these distinctions. But I’m interested in the way that my students form incredibly personal, intimate relationships with the things that they watch by themselves, that are not influenced by their sense of whether they’re in or out of sync with other people in the room. And then they come together and really stick up for how they reacted to something provocative. Not only has that been particularly tangible when you’re teaching something like Bamboozled, but we’ve been talking a lot about how when I saw Bamboozled on opening day in 2000, I was the only person in the theatre!
I will also say that some of my students say, “I do most of my movie-watching at home but I do most of my activism outside.” Now it’s a statement to put yourself in the street, period. They’re seizing their opportunity for public space for something that they see as a much more tactical and strategic way of use of public space. They can wait on the art.
:: Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000) [40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks]
MPD: I spent the month of November and part of December editing a Chinese film. The director could not come over, I could not go over there, but the editing had to be done. It was a double distance. What was missing was the possibility to argue with someone physically with the presence of someone. When you’re in the presence of your colleague or the director you’re working with, he can see on your face—the sequence is still too “hmmmmm”—and that’s enough. When we had a Zoom session with the filmmaker every Tuesday, a kind of Zoom politeness came out. You know: you want to wait your turn, you don’t want to interrupt, because then you can’t hear or whatever. So the conversation on the editing was not good. The editing has remained somehow theoretical. It’s an idea of what good editing should be, but it’s not right for the film. It doesn’t have a heart yet. It will. When we showed this first version to some friends, for their advice or opinions, they’ve all said, “We don’t understand it and it’s too quick.” So this is the consequence of the period and a way of working. It has been the same for some of my friends who have been shooting films, even outside, and many actors and filmmakers say it’s like Mahagonny: “Aber etwas fehlt.” Something’s missing.
NR: Are people making new discoveries or finding new bases for film culture through the potential for simultaneity online?
AN: I’m somehow radically hopeful, maybe because I feel that this moment is also exposing many people to different kinds of cinema. The accessibility was definitely increased. There’s a letter written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul where he is ruminating about the fact that maybe through lockdown, we would start seeing life at a much slower pace and that we would start appreciating the layeredness of life. Maybe I have taken a cue from that. I’m hoping that, as we open up from this lockdown, we will open up in smaller, intimate cinema and community screenings. This notion is quite interesting, particularly for my research. Of course, it wouldn’t be immediately possible to have a 300- or 500-seat cinema, but it would be possible for people to meet in smaller, more restricted groups. And it’s actually starting already, in India and also in some places here. This, for me, is very hopeful.
I’m wishing that these kinds of small work groups or communities of cinephiles would start working with each other as well. And this is a project that I and my colleagues are working on. It’s called United Screens, where we are trying to see how cinephile networks and communities can be instrumental in proposing the next frameworks and ecosystems of cinema distribution and experience, not just these monolithic platforms, big platforms and capitalist cinema chains, or highbrow arthouse cinemas. “From the community up” is what I’m thinking. Hopefully, that will happen.
DM: Radical drive-in cinemas everywhere!
ND: This whole situation has made me really cognizant of where I felt like I had community and where I organically, deeply had it. Film culture is one of the most beautiful areas of my life, where I make serendipitous contact with people I don’t know—it’s happening right now. For probably a lot of us, film culture has gravitated to social media conversation that can also be really sustaining, eye-opening, and you hear perspectives totally unlike yours. But it’s not the same as a film group I’ve been facilitating here in Chicago once a month. Every month since fall of 2014, with 30 women who are all 15 to 30 years older than I am. It’s become a really important community of friends through this shared interest in film. We’ve been seeing how that capacity migrated to Zoom. Our community was already in place rather than trying to devise one, when emergency circumstances required it. When this started, nobody knew everybody in the group. This year, we lost a member of the group for the first time and been through that together.
:: Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020) [Outer Piece / Hedgehog Films / et al.]
Just last week we had our February discussion about Time (2020), the Garrett Bradley documentary about a woman in Louisiana working for 20 years to try to get her husband out of jail. It’s a documentary that I’m not convinced would be as broadly accessible right now, if it weren’t for a platform like Amazon, which there’s a lot to say about. In preparing, I was reading about how the subjects of the documentary were saying: [paraphrasing] “For 20 years, I had no access to my husband, except for two hours twice a month . . . Now, a poster image of us kissing in our car in a film that includes us having sex in the car as soon as he finally gets out of jail, is everywhere in the world. And we’re getting emails and prizes from Zurich, Japan, and every place from the States. The way that our own intimacy and connection, which we didn’t have for such a long time, is now shared with everyone, would never have happened under different circumstances.” It’s partly a testimony to this world of film festivals and cinephilia that many of us are able to take for granted.
NR: Does the moment allow for any interesting juxtapositions in terms of what you are watching or otherwise engaging with?
DM: I have to confess that I really haven’t had any good cinema experiences in the last year. That’s also just a certain alienation. I’ve watched a lot of things, but I have to say my head has been mostly very empty. So I have had much more fulfilling experiences around the radio in these moments of opening up and closing back down, people coming together and being able to be together a bit. What has been really amazing is that the week after we did the Latitude on Air festival, which was planned as radio, a group of activists did an anti-gentrification opera. It was partially pre-produced and partially done with an actual demonstration on the street, with people singing along in time to the radio broadcast. It was phenomenal, I didn’t have to do anything except press play and monitor the stream. I wish I could have been there on the streets with them, but I was exhausted. All I can say is there was something so beautiful in that.
ND: I have been struck by how in the last year I have watched many fewer movies than I almost ever do. In a way, I’ve backed away from it, despite everything that we’re saying right now. What the radio has been for Diana, novels have been for me.
MPD: Same for me. I can say that the movie I remember best is the television broadcast [of the violent assault on the Capitol by domestic terrorists] on January 6th in the United States, in Washington. I remembered 9/11, and years after, you watch that and you think no way it’s possible. And I said, well, cinema has a long way to go. But there are people who want to be connected with cinema, like your friends, Nick. And they bring that meaning to me, to go back to film. I don’t miss festivals. I don’t miss the specialized places for cinema anymore. I’m thankful for friends and the people I meet and my students. They saved me! Not the films—but the people. That’s a lesson.
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