Monday 14 December 2020

Defending Cinephilia 2020 (4) - From the heart of the Victorian lockdown Peter Hourigan explains its impact on "this sometimes peculiar obsession"



Cinéphilia in this year of pandemic is probably best addressed, not through some particular films, but through some of the significant features that impacted on how we indulge this sometimes peculiar obsession.

1. CINEMAS.  In March, Victoria went into its first lockdown.  The last film I saw in a cinema was Alex Gibney’s Citizen K early in March.  It would be 35 more weeks before I got my next fix, this time in a Socially Distanced cinema, (Babyteeth from Shannon Murphy was a good way to come back) where you were almost as conscious about who was wearing their face mask properly as you were about what an interesting film it was! Not that it was needed, but this enforced cinema near-celibacy emphasised just what it means to see a film in a proper cinema. Although there were lots of films to see on the home video screen, the impact is not the same. How glad I was that I was able to see Martin Edenthis week in a proper cinema.  And in Melbourne, we’ve even gone back to the Cinemas with a new 15 cinema complex. It’s built inside the old Pentridge Gaol – how long will it take to feel comfortable with the name? And overseas would you get a Wormwood Scrubs Multiplex or the Alcatraz Cinemas? 

Youssef Chahine 

2. STREAMING and VOD – the positives.  Streaming certainly filled the empty gap left by shuttered cinemas but I had to get used to paying for TV.  I grew up with the attitude that TV is free and never could see how Foxtel was worth it. Why would you pay?  Perhaps the Streaming people had to change this mindset -  I wonder if they weren’t, in fact, the people who released the virus to so condition a whole new, and larger audience into paying for watching their own TV screen. But find out what they could offer me, and be comfortable with paying I certainly did this year.  There were so many wonderful, or interesting, or at the very least satisfying films available. And the long-form format grew even richer .  Apart from movies from studio libraries, there have been many new and worthwhile films – think Roma (Cuarón), or
The Irishman (Scorsese) just as starters. Now, the Streamers are venturing into richer worlds – Netflix’s drop of about a dozen films by Egyptian master Youssef Chahine is a treasure.  Smaller streamers (such as Kanopy, Beamafilm and MUBI) have libraries with some wonderful documentaries, and lesser seen films from more cinemas than the dominant Anglophone world of USA and UK. 

3. STREAMING and VOD – the negatives.  But streaming and vod is not completely untarnished cornucopia.  The choice may seem endless – but there is also often a deadening sameness. And there is a lot of rubbish, that can trap you into wasting time you could have used on something more rewarding. I’d often crave for something different. I have been rivetted by some of the American True Crime or Miscarriage of Justice series. Goodness knows, America has an endless source of stories justice miscarried or denied. But I can only take so many – or Scandi-noir, or climate change documentaries or … (fill in your own examples.) There also is a dearth of really Classic cinema. It seems Classic means anything from about 20 years ago, and Vintage – well, it hardly exists.  I’d love a richer historical collection to choose from. Those Technicolor MGM musicals of the 50s, or the Warner Gangsters of the 30s.  And will they ever show things from the silent era – apart from a few that are so well known many of us have them several times over on DVD. I often forget that YouTube has lots of this stuff – but some of it is of such dubious quality that you feel even searching it is a waste of time. 

Another negative about some of the streamers is the disrespect they show towards their product (Product – a hideous and disrespectful word for something as wonderful as a movie!)At least we do not get interrupted by ads from all of them (oh, SBS OnDemand!) but Netflix for example can’t wait to whip the film off, even when you’re still absorbed in the afterglow. If you don’t get to the remote in time, you can’t check that credit you wanted to see, or appreciate the lingering impact of what you’ve just ben watching.  At least make skipping the credit the choice you have to opt INTO

Chess in the Wind

4. FESTIVALS   Festivals online has to be one of the most significant impacts this year for the Cin
éphiliac.  With the virus shattering the plans for Film Festivals around the world, many went on line, and there were some rich offerings. In the past, Melbourne International Film Festival and Cinema Ritrovato Bologna have been a big part of my reality. How wonderful that they still happened this year, even if only virtually. Well, Bologna did go ahead in reality in Italy – but who dared go there when Italy was so heavily gripped by the virus. Programs were smaller, and on-line Bologna did not share some of the more promising films they screened in their cinemas. But there were some wonderful films – for me, top highlights were La Llorona (Jayro Bustamente, Guatemala) –  treat yourself to the official video clip on Youtube – from Melbourne, and the superb Iranian retrieval Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, Iran) from Bologna. But we also had a chance to see some of the offerings from Venice. And from the famed silent Cinéphiliac’s heaven, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. What a joy was William Beaudine’s Penrod and Sam. Even the local commercial or cultural festivals found a way to operate on-line. And here some standout offerings were Bellocchio’s The Traitor  and Goddess of Fortune (Ferzan Özpetek) in the Palace Italian Film Festival, and a fascinating documentary on Nobel Prize Winning Poet Seamus Heaney from the Irish Film Festival. 

I Promesi Sposi

I PROMESI SPOSI (The Betrothed)  Mario Bonnard

            This 1922 Italian film is probably an appropriate one to conclude with, because for me it sums a lot of the Cinéphilia experience in this year.  It’s a silent film version of a classic 3-volume Italian novel by Alessandro Manzoni. It was happenchance that I read this doorstopper of a book right at the beginning of the first lockdown and it was perfect (well, in one   way) preparation for pandemic. The last quarter takes place in Milan in as plague hits around 1630. The exploration of how people behave under such a threat showed how little has changed in our behaviour in almost four centuries.

I was curious when I heard that it had been filmed several times, as well as being turned into an opera, and an Italian mini-series.  One version as made in 1922 by Mario Bonnard  I Promessi Sposi. click here for a link that takes you through to the Pordenone silent streaming site   And – in a classic example of how so many cultural institutions looked for ways to share their treasures during lockdown, I was certainly eager to watch it. Here was access to a rare film, from an overseas archive we’d probably not get a chance to visit. It was an example of what streaming could bring us.  And in the way that cinema can, it reflected our world back to us, through a film made in 1924 from a novel published in 1827 about events from nearly four hundred years ago.  The more things change …….



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