We Live in a (Film) Society (of Lincoln Center)

I’ve vowed to steer clear of contemporaneity here, and I meant it when I said it, but sometimes we have contemporaneity thrust upon us. What follows are some thoughts on recent developments pertaining to the uncertain fate of Film Comment. The sound of coins clinking into my Paid Subscription cup hits the ear mighty nice.

At 3:59 PM on Friday, March 27th, the Twitter account attached to Film at Lincoln Center posted a link to an open letter from FLC Executive Director Lesli Klainberg addressed to the “Film at Lincoln Center Community.” The link was rather innocuously labeled “A COVID-19 update from Film at Lincoln Center,” and as such the sort of thing that one might easily scroll past, accustomed as we all are at this point to receiving daily “COVID-19 update” emails from Crate and Barrel, BQE Liquors, Brazzers, etc. If one did, however, chance to open the link—and enough people did that word of its alarming contents traveled fast—one would discover the following aside in its eighth paragraph: “Additionally, Film Comment magazine’s May/June issue will be distributed digitally, rather than in print, and then the publication will go on an indefinite hiatus.” Approximately a half-hour later, timed to the announcement, IndieWire ran a piece seemingly some while in the drafting by Eric Kohn, a onetime collaborator of newly appointed Film Comment publisher Eugene Hernandez, quoting from a variety of nonprofit execs on the vicissitudes faced in the post-Coronavirus landscape. Scant mention was made of Film Comment itself, but the contextualizing material placed its potential murking in a broader framework of industry-wide austerity measures, all presumably part of the necessary battening-down-of-the-hatches so that film culture as a whole, minded after by these institutions, could weather the storm. We must all tighten our belts, stiff upper lip, and all that.

As the haste of this stealth move belies, the decision to put the axe to the print magazine was one that had been made by Film at Lincoln Center—as distinct from Film Comment, which operates under FLC’s auspices—some time ago, as affirmed by an internal email of February 20 sent to me by anonymous Twitter user @filmsociety9. (I don’t need to investigate the authenticity of this document. I know.) The FLC announcement, coming at end-of-day on Friday, was clearly and cravenly timed for minimum engagement, as to give space for potential blowback to dissipate over the weekend. What this failed to account for is the fact that there are no “weekends” in a quarantine, and that we are all extremely online all of the time, and extremely angry at the fact of our being online. When it became clear that the tacky tiptoe tactic had failed to elude detection, and that there was a greater degree of fond feeling about Film Comment out there than had been anticipated, late-night “U up?” damage control Tweets were issued, including the proffering of a link to donate to FLC on behalf of Film Comment, in order to “ensure its future.” No specifics were offered as to what that future would look like, however, and this is understandably worrisome. As a friend in Pittsburgh wrote me on Saturday afternoon: “why would I send a donation w/ no guarantee of how it is going to be used? I don't want to send them $100 only to have FC not come back and instead have it detoured to sponsor ‘A very special evening with Ben Affleck’ or whatever. I also don’t really want my $$ being used to support some denuded ‘web-only’ version of the magazine.”

What seems not to have been grasped—or valued—in deciding to so cavalierly take Film Comment around back of the shed and give it the Old Yeller treatment is that, outside of New York City, Film Comment is the only connection that most cinephiles, nationally and international, have with Film at Lincoln Center, and that this alone might be seen as worth running at a small loss for. (And it is small; how much, one wonders, was the expenditure on the recent, graphically uninspired “rebranding,” dropping the “Society” to become Film at Lincoln Center?) A few paragraphs before announcing the potential termination of a 58-year-old publication in a single sentence, Klainberg writes “Like all New York City non-profit arts organizations that rely on the bringing-together of large groups as a primary revenue driver, we’ve had to make some very difficult decisions to ensure that Film at Lincoln Center withstands this period.” Given that the “bringing-together of large groups” seems unlikely to resume any time in the near future, would it not make some kind of sense to prioritize the one aspect of FLC’s operations that doesn’t rely on doing that to keep the organization in the public eye during a nervous and unpleasant time?

Here I might as well wax sentimental about what Film Comment has meant to me, and probably a great many of the sort of people inclined to sign up for the Substack newsletter of a niche film critic could get moist-eyed on the same subject. Spanning time as it has, the magazine has meant many things to different readers across the decades, and I suppose many people have their own personal Golden Age. I myself can quote chapter-and-verse from issues produced between 1997 and 2003, not necessarily because they represent the pinnacle of the magazine’s existence, but because they correspond to my late teens and early twenties, a period during which I was living in southwest Ohio, aware enough of world cinema to know that a great deal of it was not reaching me, and absolutely desperate for any word of what else was out there that I could get. I can’t say that reading Luc Moullet’s essay “Better to Burn Out Than to Fade Away: Blue Collar Dandy” on Jean Eustache in the Sept/Oct 2000 issue “saved my life,” but it certainly bent it in a manner that’s never been undone. Ditto this, from Kent Jones in a piece on Manny Farber that I would have read at age eighteen, in 1999:

“[Farber's acolytes] scour the landscape looking for examples of termite art when his most important lesson is to find oppositions that speak to the year 2000 as directly as White Elephant/ Termite Art did to 1962. For instance, the distinction between aesthetics that are handmade (Rushmore) and those that are rented for the occasion (Three Kings).”

It seems to me today that I have spent the better part of the last twenty years trying to intuit and describe that distinction, and to advocate for the handmade wherever and whenever I can.

I hope that the magazine continues to fulfill the role that it once served for me for other readers. I can’t pretend to have the same relationship with it today—or, indeed, with contemporary film criticism; I’m not the busman’s holiday type who catches up compulsively in my hours off the clock—but it’s still entirely capable of publishing some of the best film writing in America. Undertaking any given piece I earnestly endeavor to write the single best thing on the topic that I’ve ever read, but when I encountered Andrew Chan’s 2016 piece on Wang Bing, I knew that my liner notes for Three Sisters (2012) were going to have to settle for a distant second. It is certain, on the other hand, that some others take issue with Film Comment as it presently exists—regular contributor to the magazine that I am, a number of people have expressed such misgivings to me, and maybe at times I’ve even agreed with them. One common complaint is that Film Comment is too New York-centric, something that I might not have minded in my Ohio days, when The City was something to be aspired to, but which now strikes me as somewhat parochial. Different writers jibe differently with different editorial regimes, and as one who has had the doors shut in my face in the past, I know how embittering this can be. But individual issues small and large aside, can anyone honestly argue that American film culture would be improved with the absence of its single serious film magazine with the broadest reach? (With this statement I mean no disrespect to Cineaste or Film Quarterly or Shock Cinema or any other publication doing the Lord’s work, but I don’t believe any can equal the footprint of Film Comment.)

Let us take it as a given, then, that all of us—including the Film at Lincoln Center brass—would like for there to continue to be a Film Comment. The question then arises, what kind of Film Comment would we like to have? Pertinently: in this logged-on, shut-in, digitized world, what difference does it make if a magazine continues to put out a print edition? In theory, at least, the answer is: “None at all.” Reading print is my personal preference, but I started out writing online, and there’s nothing intrinsic to publishing partially or exclusively online that precludes the possibility of quality control. Film Comment over the last decade has had a significantly expanded online presence, in fact, and in my experience its online-only material has not been treated with any less editorial scrutiny that that which goes into “the book”—no small accomplishment, this. Assuming (though for several reasons I don’t at all believe it) that for readers the difference between online and print is negligible, for regular contributors to the magazine—and, at least at the time of this writing, I am still one—the difference is significant, in terms of pay. This pay-scale hierarchy follows the model of practically every publication that I’ve contributed to that maintains both a print and online presence, and generally reflects a prioritization of print pieces, which presumably will be those that command a greater depth of engagement, research, and so on: the stuff that’s built to stand the test of time. My latest—last?—piece for the print Film Comment was on the subject of King Vidor, and for it I read four books on Vidor in total, and watched and re-watched a couple of dozen feature films. I might have done this for pleasure anyways, but I wouldn’t have done it on someone else’s timeline without the prospect of fair financial recompense on the other side.

My stake as a writer here should be obvious, but I have a stake as a reader as well, for I happen to believe that there is some degree of difference between criticism and content, between writing that has been wrestled with and slept on and worked through and that which has been cranked out to stoke the furnace of the content mill, of the sort specialized in by the consummately worthless IndieWire, an institution that one shudders to think might be looked to as “a model of how to succeed in a fast-changing digital marketplace.” (The model, incidentally, is to keep up a steady stream of TV recaps, rephrased press releases, and the occasional genuflection towards a Duplass.)

The problems of how to apportion resources, and how to strike a balance between maintaining august standards and playing the click-driven eyeball harvesting game are not unique to Film Comment—though in point of fact there are precious few publications remaining that could be said to have standards to maintain, which is what makes this fight seem so crucial. It is nowhere written that a Film Comment of tomorrow would necessarily go the way of so much cultural coverage: demand more sharable likeable postables at lower rates per individual piece, creating a writer’s pool of pauperized postgraduates happy to work “for exposure.” But maybe the solutions reached will be for the good of all. Maybe on the other side of this “indefinite hiatus” Film Comment returns as an online-only publication, and maybe, loss of revenue from print advertising and the inevitable cancelled subscriptions notwithstanding, it continues to sponsor in-depth writing of the sort that the print magazine has been home to, and at rates that could help an adult not born into obscene wealth to face fiscal responsibilities. But what about this attempt to smother the magazine in the dead of night, to bury the obituary of an esteemed and venerable publication at the bottom of a crowded, dashed-off memorandum, betrays an esteem for the magazine in question, a sense that it will be prioritized in the future, or an understanding that it has at one time or another been enormously important to people?

I have the greatest of esteem for the editorial staff of Film Comment, most if not all of whom have been furloughed at this time, and every confidence that they will fight to the last breath to put out something, in whatever format, that’s worthy of the magazine’s tradition. But the erosion and eradication of legacies can happen quickly, and when it does, it happens permanently, and usually fatally. At the beginning of 2012 J. Hoberman was still the staff critic of The Village Voice. At the beginning of 2013, the Voice film section ran a piece called “Aw, Nuts: A Brief History of Movie Characters Getting Whacked in the Balls,” which features an extended quote from an interview with “Harry Knowles, founder of Ain’t it Cool News.” Jonas Mekas, a nonagenarian at the time, would outlive the film section that he’d started.

An IndieWired Film Comment might survive, but its survival would be like that of Phineas P. Gage, the foreman of the New England Railroad, who in 1848 while laying track in Vermont one day, after inadvertently triggering an explosion on the job site, had a metal tamping rod driven through his skull by blasting power. Gage lived on but, as a reporter from the New York Times noted, the accident had robbed him of his “moral center”: once an “intelligent, socially responsible fellow,” following the perforation of his brain, Gage “began using profane language, lied to his friends and could not be trusted to honor his commitments.” The equivalent to this in the case of Film Comment, one supposes, would be shitposting about Frozen 3.

Most if not all of the time, the sort of overhauls in “mission” that I’m talking about are made in the name of outreach or popularization. These are magic words, like “synergy,” that executives and board members, those idle rich meddlers, love to hear, though practically they are synonyms for suicide, diluting any sense of distinct identity in pursuit of putting out a product that someone up top thinks the punters will go in for. The features of this rejiggered product will be based on a ludicrously mean estimation of the intelligence, perceptiveness, and curiosity of the “average reader” which brings me back to a quotation from Mark Fisher I’ve had ample occasion to remember of late:  

“Treating people as if they were intelligent is, we have been led to believe, ‘elitist,’ whereas treating them as if they are stupid is ‘democratic’... The assault on cultural elitism has gone alongside the aggressive restoration of a material elite.”    

So: “Down with gatekeepers” mouth the pandering nonprofit execs who won’t miss a direct deposit while the theater ushers go on the dole, the execs so walled up in their sense of security that they can’t imagine that their actions will have repercussions, so tone-deaf as to try to turn a “Post the Film Comment cover from the month of your birth” movement born of social media mourning and public protests into a viral marketing opportunity. When you’ve just high-handedly presented the potential termination of a 58-year-old masthead and the actual cessation of its existence as a physical publication as a fait accompli, you don’t get to be sentimental.

A week ago, in outlining my “vision”—such as it is—for future writing in this space, I chanced a prediction as to what the current crisis would mean for the culture industry; it read as follows:

“My fear—and I pray that it is unfounded—is that the result of the this pandemic will be an expedition of processes of dismantling and destruction long underway, with catastrophe employed as a cover for enacting amidst the chaos the ‘necessary austerity measures’ that have been planned for and put off only for fear of public censure: slashing staff and wages, dealing print pubs the killing blow, and making those short-sighted, identity-diluting ‘popularizing’ pivots that inevitably end with a ‘Going Out of Business’ sign going on the vitrine a few years later and a trip to the glue factory. (cf. The Village Voice, among many, many others.)”

It is by no means vindicating to have had my pessimism validated in such a short space of time. But in that short space I have also begun to think about what this bloodbath might, practically, mean, and I’ve become increasingly confident that the potential disappearance of antediluvian film culture by no means will spell the disappearance of film culture itself once the waters recede.

Every tradition first comes out of nowhere. The publication of the inaugural issue of Film Comment in 1962—then called Vision: A Journal of Film Comment—was followed, one year later, by the first edition of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, co-programmed by Richard Roud and Amos Vogel. The NYFF would eventually fall under the auspices of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, founded in 1969, and in 1972 Film Comment, running a deficit, was taken under the wing of the Film Society, and turned into the organization’s house publication, which it has been ever since.

Every tradition comes from somewhere. The years in question, the 1960s to the ‘70s, were years in which the cinema, though of course long well-established as a self-sustaining popular art, finally began to receive institutional attention and support as an important art medium worthy of study and veneration, this support coming in the form of academic film studies programs, government arts grants, and induction, at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, into the venerable company of ballet, opera, orchestral music, and so forth. (The Museum of Modern Art, in prioritizing the collection of a film library almost from the time of its founding, was an outlier in offering institutional backing—but of course at the time of its founding it was an outsider museum.) This breakthrough, however, only came on the back of years and decades of pick-and-shovel work by amateurs: campus film societies across the country; screening series like Vogel’s Cinema 16; independent magazines like Jonas and Adolfas Mekas’s Film Culture, Rudy Franchi’s New York Film Bulletin and, yes, Film Comment.

What has been done before can be done again. For years, however imperfectly, however erratically, the interests of cinephile culture and the mandates of certain of cultural institutions have managed to overlap. It is to be hoped that they can continue to be so, if only because the alternative spells so much more back-breaking work. Film Comment should be preserved with its dignity intact, and we should do everything within our power to see that it is. If it so happens, however, that Film Comment has no future, or that its future doesn’t honor the tradition that the masthead has long nurtured, we’ll just break things down and go somewhere else and build things back up again, stronger. I leave you with a goodbye that I first heard from the great novelist and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer:

“Take it easy. But take it.”  

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