Movement in Terrible Immobility
By Gabe Klinger
I am writing dually from the two cities that, more than any of others, have been forced upon me by life circumstances: São Paulo, Brazil, and Chicago, USA – cities that, in just about every which way imaginable, have little correspondence, except of course in their vast differences. Having just returned from a month-long stay in the South American megalopolis to the Midwestern “windy city” – where I live for most of the year –, these differences are rather simple to define: São Paulo is tropical and temperately pleasant while Chicago tends to push its seasonal limits (enduring bitterly long winters is unfortunately a reality here); São Paulo is situated in an underdeveloped country and the poverty is everywhere while Chicago – like most major U.S. cities – tends to hide (i.e. segregate) its destitution from the glossy business landscape that dominates downtown areas; and lastly, São Paulo is a thriving industry city and even gets to call itself the economic center of Latin America while Chicago lost its claim as the “second city” (next to New York) when Midwestern industry began to disperse to neighboring towns a quarter of a century ago in a successful attempt to raise living wages (we have a nifty word for it: gentrification).
Of course, the growth of cities becomes intrinsic in discussing the cultures that exist within them, and both São Paulo and Chicago, with their long histories, are culturally rich. One could say that in both places the citizens share an indifference to culture – that is, not including football and baseball culture, respectively – that tends to dissolve the ambitions of well-intentioned cultural patrons in their efforts to achieve a sophistication on the scale of Paris, New York, or Tokyo. In my experience the indifference of city life in São Paulo comes from the economic reality that most of its residents are out of work, and the resulting bustle and hardship does not leave much room for historical or aesthetic questions. It is in this that SP’s cultural patrons are SCREAMING for recognition, as the Brazilian artistic subsidy system has to constantly defend its worth to a corrupt and self-centered government body. In Chicago, on the other hand, the indifference comes from both public and institution – a vicious circle determined simply by a show of tickets sold. It doesn’t help that the city’s artistic spaces are funded privately or by scholarly institutions, which means it’s the self-appointed heads of enterprise and tenured university officials who have the power, and dangerously, remain in power for decades.
But this type of cultural yearning veers into snobbery (and jealousy), so I will discuss and attempt to analyze two examples of what I believe are institutional perversions that exist in these two places. First, São Paulo’s Cinemateca Brasileira, today the only publicly funded all-encompassing film archive in Brazil (and a genuinely splendid place) seems to lack a more visible public showroom for its restoration projects and holdings. Often after a few scattered showings a new print of an important Brazilian film goes straight to DVD and often remains there. (This seems to be a worldwide trend now that I think about it.) On a visit to the Cinemateca a couple years ago, one of its archivists told me that the pay comes on a project-by-project basis – so that you may show up to work but not necessarily expect to be compensated for such essential tasks as general archival maintenance and cataloguing. But when a famous Brazilian film with a long ink trail in the big newspapers ensures a grant, most if not all of the (fiscal) emphasis unfortunately goes to that one work, ensuring historical biases in the limited history of Brazilian film that we have. Second perversion: Chicago’s Film Center of the School of the Art Institute, once a beacon of adventurous programming, has become a movie theater like any other, prioritizing current art-house mediocrities and content documentaries over comprehensive retrospective offerings. The Film Center moved to a new space a few years ago and now has to pay substantial rent for its prime location (again the fucking gentrification). So it, like the city where it desperately tries to survive, is a loose vector with potentialities that are curbed by this system of numbers. The grain of art used to exist at the ground level, even at places like the Film Center; but now it is impossible to use the Film Center – or indeed any Chicago institution geared towards film – on an interactive level. Interactivity at least ensures change, and right now Chicago is stagnating at the institutional level.
As for the moviegoers in São Paulo and Chicago: that’s a different story, a different postcard. Suffice it to say that this part is growing and I feel optimistic about the younger generation – paraphrasing from Balzac, they see movement in the terrible immobility that confronts us.
Published in Ekran, 2007 (February/March)