The New York Film Festival begins on Friday, September 30. I didn’t buy any tickets, although it’s not because there aren’t any good films playing. There are some great films scheduled, as there always is. But the late Annette Michelson gave me a pro tip: these films will all come out sooner or later in wide release, and if wait a few weeks, and you can see them at a discount.
In 2002, I had bought tickets for a lot of films, including the Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002). At the time, I had two friends from California in town on a production tour for Simple Shoes. I also didn’t have many friends in New York those days. I gave the tickets to a fellow graduate student at NYU to spend time with these friends. He saw the movie in my stead.
Infernal Affairs became a commercial and critical hit. It represented a milestone in Hong Kong cinema, and it even was remade into different films, including Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning, star-studded film, The Departed (2006).
For the twenieth anniversary of the film, Film at Lincoln Center is screening the three films of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, through Thursday, September 29, on the eve of the 60th New York Film Festival. (Note: Film at Lincoln Center stages the annual New York Film Festival so it’s very closely connected.)
I went last week to see the three films over a five-day period to atone for missing it the first time around. I especially liked that I saw the first Infernal Affairs at the very same place where it was screening in 2002. Technically, Infernal Affairs screened at Alice Tully Hall in 2002, and I saw it at the Walter Reade theater, but both these theaters are on the Lincoln Center campus.
Here’s my spoiler-free hot takes on the three films:
Infernal Affairs1 is the best of the lot. The stories of the two infiltrators are really deep and complex, and the layers of deceit make this a nerve-wracking experience.
Infernal Affairs 2 gives the background of the two infiltrators and how each came to be. I didn’t find the stories to be as interesting as they were in the story events of IA1, but there were some great revelations throughout.
Infernal Affairs 3 is the most restrictive in terms of character’s point of view. Unlike IA1 and IA2, it focuses more on the story of one of the infiltrators and the trauma he’s living after the killing of the other infiltrator. It also wraps up the trilogy and it’s theme of living in an eternal hell—hence the infernal in the trilogy’s name.
Back in September, a reporter at Cheddar named Antonella Crescimbeni emailed me to ask about the reasons why the movie industry had moved from New Jersey to California. She wanted to interview me for a video—part of the Cheddar Explains series of explainer videos—to learn why the American film industry had migrated from New Jersey to Los Angeles.
We talked over Skype in mid September, and the video was finished and posted to YouTube some time in October. I’m finally getting around to writing about this video.
One of the things Ms. Crescimbeni asked me was whether it was true that US filmmakers moved to Hollywood to escape Edison’s patents and to escape to Mexico if Edison’s lawyers sued filmmakers who might be infringing on his motion picture patents. This has been a widely circulated myth about the move to Hollywood that is almost as old as the movie colony itself. Lewis Jacobs wrote in his 1939 book, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History that “the safest refuge [from Edison’s trust] was in Los Angeles, from which it was only a hop skip and a jump to the Mexican border and escape from injunctions and subpoenas” (85).
It’s funny how those two parts of the story have persisted, although there’s little truth to that. There are two main reasons why filmmaking moved to Southern California. The first was because of the dry and mild climate that allowed for year-round production. The second reason is because there exists a lot of different terrains close together: a filmmaker could shoot films set in a desert, in the mountains, on a beach, in a city, and at sea. In fact, the other members of Edison’s cartel had filmed in Southern California; it wasn’t just the scofflaws that didn’t license Edison motion picture equipment.
For those wondering how Ms. Crescimbeni found me, she said that she found a lesson plan on my website about the Motion Picture Patents Company (sometimes referred to as “The Trust” or “Edison’s Cartel”) and the Independents who defied this patent pool, making films and then ultimately taking over the whole industry once feature films came to be.
The proprietors of Screen Slate have curated nifty film series at Anthology Film Archives. Screen Slate is, among other things, a website and daily newsletter of New York City independent, repertory, experimental, and artist-focused film and video screenings and exhibitions.”
The series, 1995: The Year the Internet Broke, brings together mostly-American films about the Internet that were released in 1995. The idea was to look back at Hollywood’s view of the Internet just as it was becoming a mainstream communications platform and “cyberspace” became a trendy buzzword. The series starts today, March 5, and runs through Thursday, March 12.
Some films in the series include Hackers (Iain Softley), Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii), Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow), and The Net (Irwin Winkler). I’m planning on watching Virtuosity (Brett Leonard) on Friday night.
1995: The Year I Became an Internaut
I first went on the real Internet in 1995, and, holy hell, that was 25 years ago!
Back in 1995, my friend Paul was well-versed with computers and introduced me to some early Internet applications beyond email that I could use through my university’s UNIX account. He showed me Usenet newsgroups, anonymous FTP for downloading shareware and freeware programs, and uuencode/uudecode to convert 8-bit binaries to 7-bit ASCII files suitable for transmission through ZMODEM. He also introduced me to the World Wide Web through the Lynx text-based web browser, skipping the menu-based Gopher altogether.
I should note that I accessed these applications through a shell on a university computer; I dialed in to the modem pool to get a terminal. I searched for a graphic to illustrate what this looked like, but I couldn’t find anything. Twenty-five years is a long time ago.
By summer 1995, I had learned how to configure SLIP and later PPP connections so that I could put my computer—a Macintosh Quadra 640—on the Internet. It could run Mac applications for FTP (Fetch), mail (Eudora), and a graphical web browser (Netscape). My life quickly evolved to integrate my computer and these Internet applications. I would say that 1995 marked the end of the Analog Stage of my life.
A lot has changed over the last 25 years. We now access the Internet on pocket and wearable devices, not just on computers. We now use many more Internet applications, including ones that control our light bulbs. And we now have weaponized the Internet for all kinds of nefarious actions, like spreading political propaganda and all kinds of misinformation. We’ve come a long way from hoping it would be a tool for peace, community, and education. Oh well.
And yet, over the last twenty-five years, my only regret is that I couldn’t get the term “Internaut” to catch on. It sounds so much cooler than “users.”
Over the weekend, I learned that Professor Emeritus Edward Branigan had passed away on June 29, succumbing to leukemia. During my time as an undergraduate at UCSB, I took only one class from him—Film Studies 192A: Classical Film Theory. The class was one of the most intensive classes I took at UCSB, although it would be unfair to characterize my other classes as easy.
The Classical Film Theory course was very different from most other college film courses. First, there were no film screenings. There were only readings, and there were a lot of them. Second, the class met three times a week, for a hour each day, plus a discussion section with a TA. Third, the class was not actually about film. It was a philosophy class about film. So rather than stressing concepts like aura, montage, or realism, the course was based around concepts such as ontology, epistemology, and aesthetics. And we used those to understand not just how to criticize a particular film—but to understand the nature of all film—those that had been produced and those not yet even imagined. Many students struggled in this course, but I was managed to stay afloat largely because I had already taken an experimental film course. And that course helped me understand that film was much more than we see at the movies.
The Department of Film and Media Studies posted a memorial tribute to on its website. It chronicles many major milestones of Branigan’s life and catalogs his many achievements in film studies. He lived a rich life, serving in the military during the Vietnam War era and practicing as an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood before transitioning to academia in the 1980s.
One accomplishment from that tribute that I would like to highlight is his developing Film Studies 146: Advanced Film Analysis, a class that “weeded out” the students who could not keep up with the major. For those of us that remained, it was an important part of crafting film scholars. Professor Branigan didn’t teach 146 when I took it: Donna Cunningham did. But now that I think about it, it is clear that this was a “Branigan class” in that it was not like the other film classes.
Unlike Classical Film Theory, we did screen films, but only ten of them. We met three times a week—once on Monday afternoon, again that same evening, and once more on Wednesday afternoons. On Monday, we would watch a film and study how it employed a specific narration technique: such as space, time, and sound. We talked about it some more on Wednesday. Then, the following Monday afternoon, we would screen a different film—which would be unknown to the class—and be asked to write an eight-page paper on the film’s narrational techniques by Wednesday afternoon. We would repeat this pattern four times throughout the semester. If anything, it taught me to quickly identify the “moral” of the film and to outline how the film communicated that moral through cinematography, editing, sound, mise-en-scène, etc.
The last time I saw Professor Branigan was in 2005 at the SCMS Conference in London, which is where I snapped the above photo of him. I was at NYU at the time. My friend Scott, from our UCSB days and who was studying at Berkeley, was with me. Scott and I approached… no, we cornered… Edward at an evening reception on the conference’s first day. The Film Studies department at UCSB in the 1990s was pretty small, and the students had a very close relationship with the faculty: we even called our professors by their first names. I believe Scott asked him about his new role as the department’s Director of Graduate Studies. I feigned surprise and brashly asked Edward, “Wait! They put you in charge of the graduate students?” Everyone was aware that Edward had married one of his former graduate students, who herself passed away in 2016.
He responded with a smirk on his face, with a tone of sarcasm, and in his distinctive raspy voice: “Oh, I like graduate students.”
Rest in Peace, Edward.
Update: David Bordwell wrote a touching and personal memoir of Edward Branigan, one that spans decades and maintains close contact throughout that time. Because of the Independence Day holiday, I didn’t keep up with Observations on Film Art as closely I usually do. I only found out about his passing from the UCSB Alumni newsletter.
Show a film in the basement of a century-old library and the filmmaker dies.
This might resemble the premise of a horror movie, but it’s something that actually happened last Thursday after I screened Agnès Varda’s 1962 film, Cléo from 5 to 7 in class last week. The doyenne of the French New Wave passed away last Friday at the age of 90.
My History of Film class at Pratt Institute meets in the basement of the Pratt Brooklyn library. The library was built in 1896 and is a pretty exquisite building. It is one of the oldest buildings at the Clinton Hill campus, and it features Tiffany stained glass throughout the building. Another ornate feature is that the book spine labels in the stacks are handwritten in a pretty distinct yet clearly standard style.
When our class met this past Thursday, a student remarked that he had heard that Varda had died, and it struck him that he was familiar with her work due to our screening Cléo in class days earlier. The timing was eery for him and for me.
This past week’s class involved a survey of eight American experimental films, and sensitive to the timing of Varda’s death, I noticed that of the eight films, the filmmakers of seven had already died. These are the films and the filmmakers:
Charles Sheeler Paul Strand
Meshes of the Afternoon
Bridges Go Round
As you can see in this list, of the films I screened on Thursday, only Scorpio Rising‘s filmmaker Kenneth Anger remains alive today.
Being a superstitious fellow, I worried that we would somehow curse Kenneth Anger. He is far from a young man, aged 92 years old and as old as Scorpio Rising is, he actually completed his first film in 1947.
So far, forty-eight hours after our class, Anger appears to be alive, and I wish him many more years.
Over the last year or so, a few people have told me that they stumbled upon the syllabus for my Experimental Film at Pratt Institute and have adapted it as the basis for their own similar courses. I imagine that for each person who has gotten in touch, there must be some order-of-magnitude more that have used the syllabus but didn’t alert me to that fact. Let me be clear: I don’t mind anyone using my syllabus. This is why it’s available on the open web, and not hidden behind some walled-off LMS.
However, I would like to know how others have used this syllabus so that I can improve my own course. As I’ve noted before, the syllabus for this course draws heavily on an undergraduate course I myself took in the 1990s, taught by Constance Penley at UCSB. I made a few adjustments in designing my own course. For example, I added more New York-centric films to reflect the fact that I teach these courses in New York City. Another change is dealing more directly with the early days of video art. This in turn was to reflect what I learned in a graduate course on video art at NYU, taught by Chris Straayer. Ending the class with video art allowed me to wrap up one major narrative thread about my approach to studying experimental film: video in the 1970s was like film in the 1920s, generating great enthusiasm among artists to create new visual works that were previously impossible with other forms of art.
As much as I like the narrow focus of the course, especially in its one-semester, weekly format, I feel there are many improvements that I can make, and I’d like to know how others have approached teaching this material. First, I know there is a ton of great work that has emerged since the 1970s—nearly fifty years ago at this point—that should factor in to a survey course like this one. Second, there are a lot of titles in my current syllabus that are similar to each other. I would welcome some diversity to this course. Third, how should I incorporate experimental “film” that is born digital? This question has nagged at me for decades now, but honestly, there’s so much work out there—of varying quality and subjects—that the mere thought of figuring out how to summarize even some of it seems overwhelming. For example, does Fortnite count as a born-digital experimental work? (It doesn’t, but these are the kinds of questions that haunt me in revising this course.)
In the spirit of academic collegiality and cooperation, I request anyone who has used my Experimental Film syllabus to please contact me and share your syllabus with me. You reach me via email or via the contact form on this website.
The Criterion Collection gained an almost divine status in the film world, at least to me, at the dawn of the DVD age. As DVDs were being dumped on to an insatiable DVD-buying public, the overall quality of some titles, particularly those that catered to a small audience hungry for classic, arthouse, or non-US fare, were sadly of dubious quality. Some were poor transfers. Others offered no “bonus features,” which was a bit of a waste of the multi-title DVD format. And some non-English titles displayed English-language subtitles that were burned into the image.
Criterion changed this. When you bought a Criterion disk, you knew you were getting a high-fidelity transfer, at least one bonus feature—such as filmmaker’s or a film critic’s commentary—and at least one set of removable subtitles and captions, often in multiple languages.
Shortly after FilmStruck’s closure, Criterion announced that it would be launching its own streaming service—The Criterion Channel—in 2019. They posted a signup page for Charter subscribers, offering them an extended free trial and a discounted membership. I entered my email and with the holidays and new year, promptly forgot about the service and hadn’t thought about it since.
Earlier this week, I received an email with a teaser. It featured a close-up shot of an envelope with a brief “Here’s your key. Bye” message written on it.
The email challenged us to identify the source of the close-up with a link to the new Criterion Channel website. The landing page allows Charter subscribers to stream this film. (The close-up image, by the way, is from Wong Kar Wai’s Chun-King Express.)
Currently, the service is in a kind-of soft-launch beta until its actual launch on April 8, 2019. Between now and then, Charter subscribers are allowed to stream one movie a week through a web browser or through some Internet-connected TVs.
However, despite this technical limitation, I was still able to watch the film on my iPad. The website promotes that the Criterion Channel will be “available anywhere” on “desktop, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, iOS, and Android devices.”
In addition to getting early access to the Criterion Channel, Charter subscribers will also get $1 off a monthly subscription or $10 a yearly subscription for as long as their account stays active. A Charter subscriber will also get an extended 30-day trial. Presumably a trail starting after April 8 will be a shorter 7-day—or 14-day—trial.
After AT&T Warner Media shut down FilmStruck, a few thoughts came to mind. First, why didn’t Apple buy the Criterion Collection and offer that as part of its forthcoming streaming service? Second, why didn’t I get FilmStruck? Now that it’s gone, I predict that it will attain the reverence and cult-status similar to that of the Z Channel’s demise in the late 1980s. I won’t be able to share in the nostalgic melancholy of having it ripped away from me.
Although I didn’t get FilmStruck and can stream a lot of Criterion films through other venues, I love early-adopter deals like these and already signed up as a Charter subscriber. You should too.
Note: After posting this story, I was able to figure out how to stream to my Apple TV, but I think it’s a secret, and I won’t reveal it here. Yet.
The above links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you buy something through those links, I will earn a commission fee.
Light Industry launched a campaign to raise funds to program their fall lineup. Donate at least $10 and receive passes for you and a guest to one of their upcoming events. So far, the Tuesday night events look promising. Already announced are the following events:
The weather in New York right now is very hot— the temperature has reached the mid-90°s on Tuesday and will continue through Thursday. And although it seems like I should be packing for the beach, the fall semester is upon us. This semester, I am teaching two classes: one at Queens College and one at Pratt Institute.
This class acts like a sequel for Media Technologies, where we survey various media forms. However, this class sets aside the mechanics and the history and instead focuses on the how contemporary media industries function. One theme that I hope to address throughout the term and across all the modules is digitalization and how that changes what we mean by “media.” It’s not like the record industry sells records, that people read newspapers on newsprint, and that television programs are necessarily watched on televisions.
This is the first time I’ve taught this class. When I was a cinema studies graduate student at NYU, I always wanted to teach a documentary film survey. Most of the classes that graduate students did were very narrowly focused—often closely related to his/her dissertation. I felt that this was a disservice to both undergraduates taking these class and the graduate students teaching them. It was unfair to undergraduates because they didn’t get a good foundation in cinema studies. And it was bad for us budding teachers because we didn’t get to develop classes that might be useful to teach after we graduated, especially if we didn’t get hired by a big film program.
Like a decade-and-a-half later, I finally get to do a survey of documentary film. However, as I’ve been working on this class, I can see why it’s tempting to avoid surveys. There is so much material to exclude. I literally have to prune my list of ninety-plus films to about twenty. I would feel a lot less guilty teaching a class like “Binging Truth: Documentary Films in the Netflix Age,” “Beyond the Interrotron: The Films of Errol Morris,” “WPA, FDR, and NYFPL: Interwar American Documentary and the New Deal.”
I remember an NYU professor teaching a whole semester’s seminar on the Hitchcock film Vertigo. Can you imagine how deep you could get with a topic like that? My class however is breadth over depth.
As I get older, I forget about some of the things I’ve done that not many others have. Case in point: I took two pornographic film classes as part of the my film studies curriculum.
The first was as an undergraduate at UCSB that was taught by Constance Penley, who Rolling Stone called a notorious professor in 1998. By the time I took the class, it had been taught several times and was not the hot-topic around campus as much as it was when it was first offered. Nonetheless, Penley ran the class as an historical survey of pornographic film, no different than any other professor would teach a survey of animation, documentary, or French cinema.
The second class was as graduate student at NYU, although our instructors were a bit sly about the subject matter of the class. They called it Explicitly Independent, insisting that we were studying experimental, independent film that pushed the boundaries of representing sexuality. This class was not meant as a broad survey of explicit film, as my undergraduate class was, but instead was meant to address a number of topics that our instructors were studying.
Both classes made clear a couple of facts about pornographic film:
it has been around a long time: about as long as motion pictures themselves have been around.
more people consume pornography than you think: it’s pretty much close to 100% of film viewers.
a stylistic history of pornography tracks closely to the stylistic history of cinema at large: the golden age of pornographic film is in the 1970s, which is the same decade as the golden age of New Hollywood.
Light Industry is presenting nine short films on Tuesday, February 20, beginning at 7:30 PM: a program they call The Smoker: A Brief History of the Stag Film. The term “smoker” refers to the smoke-filled rooms where men—and only men—would watch sex on film as part of some weird homosocial ritual to prove that each guy wasn’t “a homo.” If you ever wondered what your grandfather did with his buddies at an Elks Lodge meeting on a Saturday night, it was probably watching these films.
As someone who watched a lot of these kinds of films with an audience that isn’t there for sexual gratification, I will tell you will initially feel a bit awkward when you recognize the situation of watching porn while sitting next to strangers.
Light Industry seems to recognize this. They will screen the films silent in the spirit of historically accuracy. It was common for men to hoot-and-holler while these films played, and indeed, Light Industry’s website notes “in the spirit of smokers past, we encourage attendees to provide their own soundtracks.”
I would go a step further and encourage you to provide your own beverage, too. But, remember that this is the twenty-first century: there no smoking during these smokers.