Auckland Film Society 2011 Season

The 2011 season of the Auckland Film Society gets underway tonight at the Academy Cinemas on Lorne St with a 1977 film starring Isabelle Huppert. Claude Goretta’s La Dentellière (The Lacemaker) is one of three films in the festival’s 2011 programme featuring a lead performance from Huppert. The other two are Bernard Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate)—an adaptation of The Killer Inside Me author Jim Thompson’s pulp fiction Pop. 1280 that relocates the action from west Texas to a small town in French West Africa—and Une Affaire des Femmes (Story of Women), an emotionally fraught drama from the late, great Claude Chabrol. Other French flicks in this year’s lineup include Jean-Pierre Melville’s superb 1962 film Le Doulos and, from 1953, Jaques Becker’s crime movie Touchez-pas au Grisbi, which translates as “Don’t touch the loot!”

The society is holding a three-film selective retrospective of the work of acclaimed Portugese director Pedro Costa. Ossos (Bones) (1997), No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room) (2000) and Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth) (2006) screen in May and June. Ahead of the screening of her much-anticipated new western, Meek’s Crossing, at the NZIFF in June, the society screens Kelly Reichardt’s masterpiece Wendy and Lucy. The film is one of a trio highlighting women directors; the other two are Australian Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways and, from another filmmaker with a new film out this year, Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar.

Everything’s better on the big screen, but that’s sometimes true of certain films more than others. Terence Malick’s gorgeous account of the establishment of a British colony at Jamestown, and the consequent interaction with the native population, The New World, screens in CinemaScope on the 21st of March at the Academy, and there’s a special bonus screening on the 23rd at the Victoria Picture Palace in Devonport. (His new film, The Tree of Life, bound to be one of the very best of the year, is out in May.) Aleksandr Sokurov’s balletic single-take opus Russian Ark screens the following week.

Anime gets a look in with Hayao Miazaki’s Spirited Away and Millennium Actress, the second film from the late Satoshi Kon, a master of the genre whose thought-provoking films include 2006’s Paprika, which outdoes Christopher Nolan in the mind-bending dreamscape stakes at every turn. There’s a Rossellini and a Kurosawa, and a Gene Kelly picture (Singin’ in the Rain, naturally). In association with the National Film Board of Canada, three documentaries from that country—about media theorist Marshall McLuhan, chess master Gary Kasparov, and nuclear physicist Joseph Rotblat—screen in August, alongside a German film (one of six in the programme) from last year’s NZIFF, Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten (The Woman with the 5 Elephants).

Films screen at 6:30pm on Monday nights (except for three Tuesday screenings due to public holidays) at the Academy, until the end of October. Most are screened from 35mm prints, save for a handful of newer features presented in DV, and one (a Kiwi film from 1983) in 16mm. A year-long membership in the society is $165. That might sound expensive until you realise it works out to just $5.50 per film—plus it entitles you to generous discounts at the World Cinema Showcase in April, the NZ Film Festival in July, and cheaper rates year-round at the Academy, Capitol, and Rialto Cinemas, and the Victoria Picture Palace.

If you’re a student and/or a bCard holder, you can join at the discounted rate of $140. If you don’t want to commit to the full year, three-session passes are available for $30. Programmes are available from the Academy and your local library, and at the full schedule and other information—including how and why to join—is at aucklandfilmsociety.org.nz. For info on other societies around the country, see nzfilmsociety.org.nz.

I SPOKE WITH Dr. Simon Sigley, a film lecturer at Massey University, and began by asking how film societies have remained relevant in the modern era of streaming media, DVDs and other continuing advances in technology—why go to the movies if you can watch just about anything you want at home?

Sigley: Although entertainment platforms have multiplied since film societies first began organising screenings for their members (1920s in Europe and the USA; 1930s in NZ) and we can now access ‘entertainments’ from a series of new technologies, the physical sensations of watching a film on a cinema screen in the company of others is fundamentally different from the sensation that accompanies watching films on a computer screen, television or smart phone.

When we go to the cinema we are thrust into a relationship with the sounds and images of whatever narrative is being told which is like that of very young children fascinated by the world around them, absorbing it almost through every pore in their skin rather than simply drinking it in via the eyes and the optic nerve. (This is no slur on adulthood; it’s important, I believe, to maintain the capacity of naïve wonderment that children possess.) Raymond Bellour, a French film critic and theoretician has done a lot of work in this area, drawing on extensive research that an American child psychologist (whose name escapes me) conducted into the developmental patterns of children.

cinefile: You wrote your PhD thesis on the development of film culture in New Zealand from 1929-1972; how did movie-going evolve in those years, and what—if anything—is different about the way organisations like the Auckland Film Society operate now?

Sigley: Jean-Luc Godard once quipped, as television began to rise, that when he went to the cinema he looked up at the screen but that when he watched television he looked down at it; this clearly denotes a high culture/low or popular culture split, which is hardly tenable nowadays but does suggest something of the ‘aura’ that film had for filmmaking artist-philosopher gadflies like Godard.

What interests me in Godard’s epigrammatic phrase is the fact that our attention is less divided when we watch a film on a ‘proper’ cinema screen. Our attention to the narrative is, thus, likely to be less distracted than when viewing films in other settings, notably domestic, where many other things are likely to be going on, and of which we become aware of; this obviously creates a distracted viewing experience quite different from that of the mild sensory deprivation of a darkened cinema where we focus intensely on the screen and not on the things around us, which also includes people—unless they’re loud popcorn crunchers or drink slurpers.

Film societies also function as fora in which discussions about film and filmmakers can occur. Directors can be invited to talk about their films and members explore the art of filmmaking, or the themes that the film throws up. For the most part, I think that many films are consumed rather hastily: seen and then forgotten. This can be a pleasurable enough experience for the many ‘escapists’ among us, but there are other pleasures that attend the discussion of film with friends or like-minded individuals who seek out more from a film than 90 quick minutes of distraction. We don’t talk enough about film.

Film societies still offer their members access to films that would not receive a screening elsewhere, in conditions that seek to emulate those the filmmaker had in mind when the film was made—i.e. an uninterrupted narrative, and a shared experience in a darkened auditorium with attention focussed on the story. There have been changes since film societies first appeared in this country; times when they grew rapidly, such as in the post-World War Two period and in the early 1970s when a younger generation of film society programmers sought out ‘controversial’ films that challenged or questioned prevailing attitudes about sex, gender relations, authority, etc. But they have always relied on the voluntary work of committed individuals and exist on the proverbial smell of an oily rag.

Independent distributors and exhibitors relied on film societies in the 1950s and helped ‘grow’ an audience for foreign language or ‘continental’ films. This lead to the establishment of cinemas screening films for audiences whose ability to put up with (and even enjoy) narrative ambiguity, character ambivalence and time-shifting storylines grew as their understanding of film as an art form advances and their education levels included more tertiary exposure to complexity. It’s no accident that film society members tend to be drawn from the more formally educated members of society: their tolerance levels for the quirky and downright weird seems greater.

Here’s another reason why film societies—and critics such as yourself—take film and the cinema more seriously than the purveyors of ‘simple’ entertainments would care to consider. For certain influential French film critics, the cinema, as the pre-eminent art form of industrial capitalism, has an historic role, which is to create a singular space via its system of representation to allow individuals to participate in a critical debate, the purpose of which is to articulate a relationship between the real and the imaginary, the collective and the singular.

Questioning the specificity of the cinematic medium in its relationship with multiple realities is of great importance. It is specifically because the cinema is an art that individuals can engage in what are urgent debates concerning citizenship in contemporary societies. Jean-Michel Frodon’s Horizon Cinéma is a book that seeks to redefine the place that cinematographic art occupies in the new audio-visual landscape created by digitisation and globalisation. He’s not only the film critic for the French newspaper Le Monde but also editor of Cahiers du Cinéma.

cinefile: Apart from the Rialto in Newmarket which has a short-run, basically unadvertised programme of “Classics,” and the odd restored print at festivals, New Zealand doesn’t have much of a repertory or revival cinema culture—is this purely because running a cinema that doesn’t show the latest releases wouldn’t be economically viable, or are there other reasons? Do you think outlets like the Auckland Film Society adequately fill this gap in the market?

Sigley: In New Zealand we are still largely bereft of so much world cinema that it pains me to think of how much we don’t see. There are perennial problems for a country our size: with only 4.4 million people, the market isn’t large enough to sustain distributors who might want to bring in more of what’s made. The other big problem is that the state is miserly in its support of the arts and culture; the arts infrastructure here has a long way to go and in the current economic and ideological climate, it is improbable that state support of arts, culture and heritage will increase. Unfortunately, market forces rule; we are living through some of the results of the worst form of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism since the 19th century, and it ain’t pretty.

We need a cinémathèque of the sort that exists in Melbourne, Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, Amsterdam, etc.—one that receives financial support from public institutions. Will we get one? Not without a long, hard struggle. In the absence of such an august and vital institution, film societies and the annual film festival will continue to provide New Zealanders curious about life in all its strange and delightful forms and combinations with sights and sounds of occasionally extraordinary beauty, significance, wonder and mystery.

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