Thursday, September 04, 2008

Reinventing Ourselves in Programming (at The Nordic Film Archives' Meeting in Copenhagen)

The world of the moving images changes so fast that we, the programmers of film archives, need to reconsider our vision annually and even more frequently. Home cinemas with large screens, internet downloading, dvd, high-definition dvd such as Bluray, digital television and high definition television – they all change the landscape rapidly.

    Besides, during the recent decades the film festival proliferation and their growing popularity, art museum and gallery presentations of moving images, and huge high profile live cinema and other events have brought new and exciting forums for quality films and classics of the cinema for wider audiences.

    As many of us have stated, we are no longer as unique as we used to be during the decades from the 1940s to the 1970s. I think all this is great. And of course, we the archives are participating in much of these new phenomena.

    Yet, although an extraordinary selection of films is available on tv, dvd, and the net, if we look at our programmes, most of the titles there are still difficult or impossible to find for home viewing. That, however, is likely to change.

    But regarding home viewing we know that nothing can replace the cinema experience. A big film's feeling for space and landscape can only be experienced in the cinema. An intimate psychological film, a chamber piece such as Ingmar Bergman's, is at its most intensive in the cinema. A comedy is many times funnier when experienced by a cinema audience with its successive waves of laughter. A thriller or a horror film is much more effective in the darkness of the cinema.

    Although festivals, art cinemas, galleries such as Centre Pompidou and special events offer many of the things that cinematheques have traditionally presented, and sometimes better than we do, the combination of a film archive's programming is unique.

    Each of us has a distinctive profile of programming, but we have many things in common. The following is an attempt to summarize the Finnish recipe of programming in 16 points. The Finnish programming aims at "full service" of everything that a cinematheque is expected to offer. The vision has always been to present "all cinema" in a meaningful way. During our 50 years of activity we have gained a special role in the country's cultural life, close links with other arts and a nationwide presence from Helsinki to Lapland. We have achieved a brand of quality. This, however, can never be taken for granted. Each season, the brand has to be earned over again. The only constant is change.

    1. META-PROGRAMMING. Meta-programming means that there are continuities and balances that stretch over years and even decades. Some films have "heavy rotation" to borrow MTV terminology, other themes unfold slowly. There are attempts to balance films of various periods and countries, without mechanical constraints. Sometimes there are practical reasons to programme too many films of the same era, of a similar sensibility or cultural background. Then adjustments need to be made to restore the balance in the next future.

    2. FILM HISTORY. The most important keynote principle is to present the great outlines of film history - the main periods of style, the historical turning-points, the key works. A rule of thumb is that a young person who comes to Helsinki for five years to study can get a good general education of film history by following the screenings of Cinema Orion. More profoundly, history can be examined through cinema, and even fiction films seen as documents of history. Most excitingly, we can trace a philosophy of history through the cinema.

    3. THE WORLD CINEMA. Another keynote principle is world cinema. The general cinema distribution is dominated by Hollywood entertainment. It is our pleasant vocation to pay tribute to the rest of the world. Even European cinema is under-represented in the current commercial Finnish cinema repertory. Asian and Latin American cinemas deserve attention. Satu Laaksonen's series of Arab, Iranian and African films have been especially ambitious, and they have left lasting marks. The archive has always played an essential role in opening up Japanese cinema to Finnish audiences.

    4. NATIONAL CINEMA. Cinema Orion is the home of Finnish film art in its whole spectrum. Central artists such as Jarva, Kurkvaara, Tapiovaara, and the Kaurismäkis get special treatment. Complete retrospective are mounted of even the most prolific directors such as Vaala, Laine, Leminen, Kassila, Unho and Hällström. Restored films are brought to the screen sometimes after generations (Tulio). Finnish cinema in extenso is the largest retrospective, and in a small country like Finland it is possible to screen all: of the 1250 Finnish feature films produced in a hundred years 690 have been screened in Cinema Orion. Together with the Risto Jarva Society dozens of film artists have been celebrated as special guests in extensive tributes to Finnish cinema.

    5. THE CLASSICS. The concept of the classic (even if elusive, shifting, changing, controversial) is at the core of cinematheque programmin. The top ten films of Britain's Sight & Sound (last polled in 2002) are also examples of the best-loved films in Cinema Orion: Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Rules of the Game, The Godfather, Tokyo Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Battleship Potyomkin, Sunrise, 8½, and Singin' in the Rain.

    6. THE BIG RETROSPECTIVES. The big or complete retrospectives of the masters are trump cards of the film archive. They take a lot of space, but every generation deserves a full retrospective of Mizoguchi, Renoir, Hitchcock, Bergman... In between it makes sense to mount selective retrospectives. It is equally important to present the lesser-known directors in a proper balance. The anti-Hollywood bias of the archive audiences sometimes plays tricks with the attendance to retrospectives of American directors, including even John Ford, whose work we would like to screen more than the audience is ready to receive.

    7. AVANTGARDE. Cinematheques have always been a cradle of experimental films (avantgarde, artists' films). They are treated with tender love, because in experimental films cinema is born again. The experimental film collections and series of The Museum of Modern Art and the Goethe-Institut have received a lot of space in Cinema Orion, and together with Mika Taanila, himself a film artist, and the Avanto Festival, ambitious events have been arranged, as the quasi-complete retrospective of Finnish experimental film accompanied by the book Sähkömetsä (The Electric Forest), and a large and successful tribute to P. Adams Sitney and Jonas Mekas' New American Cinema tours in 1968.

    8. DOCUMENTARY. Another constant is the emphasis on the documentary film. Besides feature-length documentaries, for the last 25 years, there has been an inspired series called Treasures from the Archives edited for the Tampere Short Film Festival by Raimo Silius and Lauri Tykkyläinen. And in this decade there have been over 40 special programs called In the Core of the Documentary, curated by Ilkka Kippola and Jari Sedergren, with a radical agenda of rewriting film history, and maybe even rewriting history.

    9. ANIMATION. A further major strand is animation, from Japanese anime, Russian fairy-tales and Czech classics to the surrealism of the Quay Brothers. The great Americans such as Walt Disney, Tex Avery, and Warner Bros. have been screened really extensively in Cinema Orion, but animation mega-series seem to wear out most spectators. The main dilemma is that the films are meant to be screened singly, but in a retrospective they need to be packaged together. The most popular animation figure in Cinema Orion is Krtek (The Little Mole): his shows sell out. Finnish animation (Katariina Lillqvist and others) is presented with special care.

    10. COUNTER-HISTORY. There has been a revival of the secret histories of the cinema thanks to the Tarantino phenomenon. Blaxploitation, Hong Kong martial arts movies, Italowesterns, Hammer horror and Japanese monster films had been screened in Cinema Orion before Tarantino, but thanks to him, there has been a new level of ambition comparable to the Venice Film Festival's "secret history of the Italian cinema" projects. Two guest curators, Lauri Lehtinen and Antti Suonio, have mounted special retrospectives in Cinema Orion with such inspiration that they themselves have received brand recognition. Formerly popular concepts such as "cult movies" and "B movies" are fading as being too broad and misleading in this new generation of discovery.

    11. RESTORATION. Rescuing films from oblivion, saving them from destruction, and actually preserving and restoring them, is the core concept of the archives, and screening restored treasures is our happiest mission. The 70th anniversary tribute to La Cinémathèque française and the Centenary retrospective of the Nordisk company in brilliant prints from Det Danske Filminstitut have been some of those happy occasions, as well as recent retrospectives of Sjöström and Stiller from Svenska Filminstitutet or the new Lubitsch prints from the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung.

    12. EARLY CINEMA. Particular attention is paid to early cinema, the films before the First World War, the age of the pioneers before the breakthrough of the feature film. We have acquired our own sets of prints of Helsinki's first Lumière show, of Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Co., and of the Skladanowsky films. Our foreign film archivist, Juha Kindberg, has preserved, restored and researched in depth our own early film treasures, also for the Orion screenings. Among the discoveries: an exciting Pathé compilation of the Russian revolution of 1905, including the original Pathé version of the Battleship Potyomkin.

    13. THE FORBIDDEN, THE DIFFICULT, THE IMPOSSIBLE. Some films have been impossible to see anywhere but in the archive. In 2001, film censorship was abolished in Finland, but during decades many classics were banned by the Finnish counterpart of the Production Code Administration (Trouble in Paradise, The Blue Angel... ) and later by the state board of classification (the ban of One, Two, Three in Finland until 1986 was itself a Wilderian joke). The archive was the place to see Salò and The Empire of the Senses, then banned, now free. Since the glasnost the discoveries of banned films from Russia and East Europe have been abundant, including the Locarno discoveries of the Unknown Soviet Cinema. It is also the task of the archive to screen films that are extremely short (early cinema, Fluxus) or extremely long. Cinema Orion is the place to see in full Scenes from a Marriage (Bergman), Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder), Hitler (Syberberg), Shoah (Lanzmann), Pagnol's Marseille trilogy in one long night, or the Finnish masterpiece The Eight Deadly Shots (Niskanen) in its only correct version of over five hours.

    14. RARE FORMATS. For a long time film archives were the only venues where one could see silent films properly projected. It is a pleasant sign of the times that awareness of the correct presentation of silent and classic films is spreading. All aspect ratios, projection speeds, sound formats including magnetic sound, sepmag 16mm, and so on are respected in Cinema Orion, which also belongs to the archival cinemas that still screen nitrate. It has been a privilege to see first generation nitrate prints of Finnish classics in the Vaala, Leminen, and Unho retrospectives. Also screenings of nitrate copies of Murnau, Sternberg, Ophuls, Flaherty and Ford have given the Orion spectators a special awareness of their art. The definition of light was often personally supervised by the director. Current generations can still see the result first-hand.

    15.  PUTTING INTO PERSPECTIVE. Film programming is not stamp collecting. It is revisiting films, rediscovering films both in the large context of history and culture and as single electric jolts. Special theme series give accents and create new connections. Programme booklets give introductions to the current themes, program notes give detailed facts and interpretations of the single films, sometimes at a high ambition level. Artists themselves and experts, scholars and archivists as special guests, lecture series, seminars, and live cinema events, all deepen the experiences and make them unique. Cinema is the privileged art of "time regained" in the Proustian-Benjaminian sense. Screenings can change the way we see history, our parents' and grandparents' lives, ourselves.

    16. ACCESS AS WIDE AS POSSIBLE. Film archives are not film distributors, but in Finland, access is as generous as possible within FIAF standards and the rights-holders' consent. Besides the archive's own programming in ten university cities from Helsinki to Lapland (in Helsinki, Joensuu,
Jyväskylä, Lahti, Oulu, Rovaniemi, Tampere, Turku, Vaasa) we are partners for film festivals and special events of nation-wide relevance, let film students access archival prints, organize national tours of new prints of classic film and participate actively in the global exchange of programming. Film clubs have always been our best friends, and although we don't circulate archival prints in film clubs, our common interest is to get more new prints of classic films into general distribution.

     The question of attendance has become topical in the last couple of years. Our attendance in Cinema Orion, which seats 216, had a steady average of some 60 viewers per screening, until in the autumn in 2006 there was a drop to some 50 per screening. This can still be a matter of a natural ebb and flow. In the Finnish archive's other cities the performance has been strong, and film festivals (many of them with archival features) are at the peak of their popularity. But this is a challenge, and it has to be taken seriously. There are many fronts to consider. The single most important is the home front: the new home viewing with the magnificent home cinemas and the seemingly limitless access to films from the net, dvd, and tv. It has come to stay and will get much stronger. Yet people will notice the superiority of the cinema experience. Our core audiences tend to live in cramped circumstances, and they want to enjoy the space of the cinema.

    One of the challenges is the audience specialization. In 2002 we mounted an anime series of the best-known standard titles with great success, although the prints available were dubbed in English. In 2007 we mounted a much more ambitious anime retrospective in original-language prints with English subtitles. It was not so successful, and apparently the reason for that was that the anime fans have meanwhile specialized into several subgroups that are more difficult to reach.

    Facing new challenges, we need to reinvent ourselves. In Finland we are expanding our film education activity, working with schools and children. Our close cooperation with the universities' student film activists has been wakened after a certain period of passivity.

    Quality becomes more important: quality of films, prints, and presentation. Paradoxically, tolerance of films that are not translated into the national language is weakening, perhaps because of the growing availability of subtitled films for home viewing. We now feel the need to offer a Finnish translation of films in Swedish or with Swedish subtitles only, although Swedish is the second official language of bilingual Finland. Eventually all films ought to have Finnish in them, and there is likely to be a big jump ahead in electronic subtitling with D-Cinema.

    There is the disquieting situation of film criticism (and of film culture, and even of any appreciation of "difficult" culture). Globally the space of serious film writing is diminishing in the main media. In Finland we were hit hard a few years ago. There were seven film journalists that had an active interest in the film archive in the main newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. Now there are only two. Our atmosphere in the traditional media has shrunk.

    Cinephilia is a key question. In Helsinki we still have a core group of cinephiles that have attended our screenings since day one for over 50 years. They include the founders of the archive, Jörn Donner and Aito Mäkinen. New generations have joined them, and pleasantly enough, there are several young cinephiles.

    We are searching for the best way to establish a stronger internet presence. The archive's homepage has already been a major channel for years, but we want to build on this. We are launching ourself in Facebook. We are looking seriously into online ticket sales, which at first seems overwhelming for a small organization, but we need to go there.

    As colleagues have stated, we are living in an event culture. We need to face this and create events ourselves, realizing that this is a time of increasingly specialized audiences that can time and again cross over.

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