Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Critics, Pirates, Creators and Consumers

Or, some random thoughts inspired by a couple of film festival panels I have attended over the past couple of days....

Every year the Edinburgh International Film Festival does a number of these panel events. By their very nature they can be a bit hit and miss, depending strongly on the quality of the panelists, the moderator and the questions from the audience.

This year I attended three panels, two of which – film criticism in the age of the internet and the notion of postive piracy – I feel are worth writing about here; I won't mention the third by name, but merely indicate that it didn't add terribly much to my understanding of the debates around its subject, though this could be because I'm arrogant or knowledgeable enough (take your pick) to feel that I really didn't need anyone else to be talking about its particular subject at the level the panelists did.

Both criticism and piracy are issues that I am closely involved in anyway: as regular readers will know I write reviews of films that I would consider veer in the direction of criticism a lot of the time, and that these are often of rather obscure genre films that I download from file sharing sites or exchange with other fans because they are more often than not unavailable by other means.

As such, I can't claim to be a neutral party: I have an agenda. I want to see the overthrowing of the existing power structures within cinema, so that anyone can see any film they are interested in, no matter whether it is art or trash; where it comes from; how old it is; with prejudice as to its aesthetics and politics, and ideally be able to find intelligent commentary on that film that helps make sense of and appreciate what it is doing, with the emergence of a discursive community around it.

The thing that emerged from the internet criticism panel was how far we've come and how far we've still got to go on this. Newspaper critics, in the UK at least, still tend to come from the same narrow backgrounds, still tend to keep a distance from film theory – sometimes wisely, it must be said – and seem to a degree to be beholden to two pressures that work against their writing about the sort of film I'm interested in.

The first of these is the power of the majors, that if a blockbuster is the film of the week they must give it pride of place in a column whether or not it merits it or if much can actually be written about the film itself. The second is the enduring power of the art / popular cinema divide, by which certain films are automatically deemed worth writing about or not worth writing about and of praise or condemnation.

With this, I found myself thinking back to some old issues of the Monthly Film Bulletin from the 1960s and 1970s I was reading recently: The MFB had the policy of reviewing every single film given a theatrical release in the UK, such that the latest from Bergman or whoever would sit alongside a dubbed spaghetti western or Eurohorror. But the reviews were divided into two classes: those films deemed to be of interest to the magazine's readers, which got more throughgoing analysis, and those of everything else, which tended to amount to three or five lines of summary, often dismissive, commentary after the plot synopsis. Sight and Sound, which ran parallel to the MFB for a number of years and now continues its remit of reviewing everything, though not with the same overt split, still tends to feature reviews of varying length and implicit assumptions of value.

Now, of course some reviews are always going to be longer than others, with some films warranting more commentary than others. But the thing that really stuck me, thinking about it, is how the web frees us from word / space limits, and how different things can be if we approach even the least film with a view to finding something more to say about it beyond a summary dismissal: what happens if we actually have to try to work through, for each and every film, what it does specifically as a unique object?

I can't say I live up to this ideal myself, and in truth I don't think many of us could, but it seems something to aspire towards...

A more difficult balance emerged as that between breadth and depth. All of the critics commented on the value added by the professional critic with the ability and willingness to go deeper than the fan who simply says that he or she liked or disliked something. Yet the question of breadth and depth remained at the back of my mind: it's all very well to say this, but isn't the critic who knows about the 'right' sorts of film, those which are either commercially or culturally valued, still perpetuating the same system so long as he or she is not being exposed to? Likewise, if the critic only sees a relatively narrow range of cinema – and I am not suggesting that they all necessarily do, but the Time Out panelists' comments about having a panel of reviewers, with certain ones who would be assigned to go see and review particular types of film – then how can they really educate their audience? At what point do we need the outsider's view, as when the the critic confronts a cinema that they have little or no knowledge of? How far does familiarity or unfamiliarity breed contempt? The classic kung fu fan should see some contemporary Iranian cinema, and vice versa, but how people actually many do?

The positive piracy panel, meanwhile, was interesting for the very admission that its title – which itself is of course problematic, in that we should really be debating and defining exactly what piracy is, whether it is anything beyond armed robbery at sea – made. Piracy is not, as the somewhat on-the-spot spokesperson for the Federation Against Copyright Theft often found himself trying in vain to get around, a cut and dry situation. What is positive for one individual or group, namely the fan who wishes to gain exposure to a wider range of cinema, is bad for another, namely the big players who really do not want us to become aware of any alternatives beyond the narrow range they are offering. To their credit, however, the other three panelists, independent horror filmmaker Alex Orr, an internet journalist, and a writer and programmer for the ICA, who expressed the desire that more of the kind of films the ICA showed were available to a wider audience, each understood the positive side of new avenues for distribution. They understood that, while the blockbusters and multiplexes are still here, there is the emergence of new sensibilities and understandings amongst filmmakers and of new audiences and communities who are quite simply bypassing the increasingly outmoded powers that be. Why is it okay for manufacturers to exploit freedom of the marketplace to move manufacturing wherever costs are cheapest, often devastating communities in the process – externalitie they do not need to worry about – yet bad when consumers exploit the same freedoms the internet gives them?

The idea of punk rock and DIY came up repeatedly within the panel. The FACT representative and the chair seemed to be invoking it solely in terms of a route in, that sooner or later the artist would want to work with the major label / studio and to make the big money. Orr, however, seemed to grasp the fundamental issue here: there is art and there is commerce and, if not necessarily incompatible, they are not necessarily compatible either. Too many artists have been screwed over buy the industry to believe otherwise.

The way forward, one has to conclude, is punk, is DIY, is fans ripping films and doing their own subtitles and reconstructions, but inspired more by the likes of Roberto Rossellini (as a name who came up in the discussion, along with the aesthetics of neo-realism, and, though none of the panelists mentioned this, who was also an independent producer in his own right) and ideologically pure post-punks like Fugazi:

“What could a businessman ever want more / Than to see us sucking on his store / We owe you nothing” or, to quote their song Cassavetes, about the founding father of independent American cinema, “If it's not for sale you can't buy it”

But, we might add, you may well be able to download it, or trade it with another in your particular fan producer-consumer community...


slizwiz said...

I'm torn between downloading films (or trading DVDRs with folks) and just waiting for the really rare gems to turn up on DVD. The fact is, I haven't downloaded a film in years and my trading days have been quite unsuccessful. So I'm more inclined to buy a film than to settle for a bootleg. The main reason being that I keep thinking that my reluctance to download every little thing I want to see will encourage DVD companies to acquire more films, restore them, and put them out with some sweet extras on disc.

I know that the chance of all of Italian genre cinema ever coming to DVD is impossible. I've always felt that my rampant consumerism will encourage more great rarities to make it to a format I can easily acquire. I've also picked up an international DVD player so that I can get even more obscure titles.

So, I guess what I'm saying is, I support the system. Not the majors like Paramount, Lionsgate, or Sony. Instead, I try my best to acquire titles from Blue Underground, Mondo Macabro, NoShame, Severin, Raro Video, Dark Sky, etc. so that I'm, hopefully, encouraging these smaller companies to keep up the good work. Now I know that DVD studios like these tend to come and go like the wind and that some of them are even probably subsidies of the larger corporations but I stubbornly keep buying their stuff.

K H Brown said...

I'm with you on the small companies as they generally do a very good job with their product, because they're fans themselves and I don't think they can afford to take the same kind of hit from copying or downloading as the majors do.

I think trading can be difficult, because as you get more into it it can become more and more difficult to find things you haven't got or which the person you're trading with doesn't have, or simply even keeping track of which titles you have and which versions / sources.

I find I've developed quite a high tolerance for watching poor quality Finnish VHS rips and suchlike, though I would be in there like a shot to buy the films if they ever were released legitimately. I wish, for example, that NoShame was better at releasing their Italian sex comedies with English subs. I know there are probably business reasons, but when you get fansubs appearing for AVI rips it kind of defeats the purpose of not releasing them in this way and seems, to me, to indicate that a demand is out there.

Thanks for your insights - it is, and will probably always be, a contentious issue.