New York Cinefilia
By Zach Campbell
A few hundred words to tell you something about serious film culture in New York City … where does one begin? Well, perhaps there is one introductory thing I should impart to you immediately. Over the years one could say that New York has said many »goodbyes to Dragon Inn«, losing many beloved cinema houses, and the concerns of Tsai Ming-liang’s film are as relevant to New York as they are to Taipei, as they are no doubt relevant in their own equal way to Ljubljana. Still, we have much to be thankful for in America’s best filmgoing city. Screenings here are often crowded – even screenings of supposedly »unpopular« films like those of Stan Brakhage or Béla Tarr. In New York, no film enthusiast could ever claim there is nothing worth seeing.
With this cinephile’s rich terrain in mind, I have become interested lately in what I perceive as an increasing local attention to the people on the other side of the cinematheque schedule: programmers and curators. It could be that my perception is has given the mere illusion of increasing importance, and that in reality programmers receive no more or less attention than they have received for years.
Let me offer some anecdotes, however. Amidst the installations, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other film/video programs at the current Whitney Biennial a photographer named Christopher Williams has put together two short-film programs (spaced several weeks apart), and before I saw the first one, it was introduced as though it were almost like a work of art by Williams in itself. Afterwards, my friend and I discussed the interesting similarities and contrasts between the nine chosen films (which included work by Kubelka, Rouch, and others). In addition to some great films, the craft (or art) of the films’ selection and sequence itself was ripe for analysis. There were echoes and productive conflicts between multiple films on topics such as the artifice of the frame, the didactic potential of an image, or the role of narration, for instance. A similar thing happened a week or two later at the New York Underground Film Festival, where an Alexander Kluge video was followed by a live performance of songs by the great American composer Charles Ives, and then followed by some charming and crazy 16mm avant-garde films. (The themes here were sound and image, as well as our cultural history.) Where film programs may have their own publicly recognized »authors«, we can see a new strain in film culture, something like DJ-ing where you play your favorite prints or videos rather than records or MP3s. Perhaps we will soon see the day, here and elsewhere, where ‘programmer’ is a term with as much weight and even mystique as that of a good DJ. New York lacks an Henri Langlois, but the richness of its film offerings suggests innumerable followers …
Yours in the Big Apple,
Published in Ekran, 2006 (April/May)