Thursday, May 24, 2007

A letter to ACMI

For many years I had a bin hire business (I sold it in 2000) and always appreciated frank feedback from my customers. I also make it a point to offer feedback - both positive and negative - to others when I feel the occasion warrants it. ACMI's Focus on Isabelle Huppert is, in my opinion, such an occasion, and I decided to send an email. As it encapsulates several things I wanted to post here, I shall reproduce the bulk of the email here:
As an avid film-goer and amateur critic I wanted to offer some feedback. It is my observation that since the Lumiere cinema closed in 2005, there's been a bit of a vacuum of gritty cinema in Melbourne. Some people say that ACMI has filled it somewhat, though my perception is no-one has had the guts to screen what the Lumiere did, particularly with films like Irreversible, Audition and L'enfer.

Now, I don’t know how commercially successful the Huppert season will be (and I hope it will be the sell-out it deserves to be), but I think that this is an excellent lineup of films that deserves to screen regardless of popularity. With art, I don't think popularity should be the prime criteria. Most French films that get a commercial release in this country are not much better than the mindless Hollywood counterparts that are distributed. Isabelle Huppert is drawn to the serious French films that serious film lovers can't get enough of, and that I usually have to seek out at the French Film Festival (like this year's Private Property and A Comedy of Power) or MIFF.

It's going to cause me some anxiety trying to get to as many of the 16 films in the season that I haven't seen, in a very short period. It's a pity it wasn't screening over a longer period with so many (19) films.

It also got me thinking that there's other actors who are drawn to gritty roles. Seeing Tim Roth in Made in Britain at the Focus on Punk reminded me of how he could make a good Focus season (especially as he has also directed a seriously good film, The War Zone) and last night I saw Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man, also part of the Punk season. A focus on Stanton would also be great.
Danielle Poulos, Communications Coordinator at ACMI very kindly responded to the email and sent me three double passes, two of them for the Huppert season. While I appreciate the generosity, I must confess that my sharing my opinions was completely self-serving. I wanted to give the programmers the type of ammunition that might be required in future to get other serious events off the ground.


Marina said...

It's so rare that one does get feedback, either positive or negative, that it's a joy to get it. At least that's how I feel about it and I think this may have been the case.

Good for you for taking the time to make your point. Most people don't bother.

Matt Riviera said...

Great initiative!

We definitely need more retrospectives and re-releases. And we need strong government-subsidised arts venues across Australia so that these programs can be toured nationally, allowing for economies of scale (flying film prints over to Australia is incredibly expensive, not to mention guests).

I'd also like to point out that many of the titles in the Huppert retrospective have had a theatrical release in Australia. What I find sorely missing in this country are the hundreds of quality foreign films which don't get picked up for distribution.

We can't rely solely on SFF or MIFF once a year to get our fix. Yes distributors (and cinemas) obey the law of market demand. But without a broader spectrum of titles on offer, that demand will continue to dwindle and viewers will resign themselves to commercial releases.

In the long term, this could lead to an overall impoverishment of Australian screen culture, which is also likely to affect film festivals, and more seriously perhaps, the quality of films produced in Australia. (While there's been good news for the local film industry in the recent budget, it takes more than production funds and tax breaks to nourish and sustain a healthy film culture).

We need to understand that a thriving film industry can only exist with a thriving film culture to sustain it. Not the other way around.

Film needs to be removed from the free market equation as a cultural treasure in need of protection and nurture. We need to invest in film education and offer susbtantial support not just to local filmmakers and visiting US productions, but also to distributors and exhibitors who take large financial risks to ensure we all have access to world cinema in all its complex diversity.

In the meantime let's show ACMI, Chauvel Cinema and others that they've made the right choice and flock en masse to the Huppert retrospective!

(sorry for the rant!)

Paul Martin said...

Rant? You call that a rant? I'll show you a rant, Matt! Nuh, just joking. It may not surprise you to know that I generally agree with the thrust of what you're saying. I won't be holding my breath for much to change, however.

The reason I wrote to ACMI in the first place was because I thought this is the kind of film event that should be shown and supported regardless of public support. I don't think popularity should always be the gauge, especially at a non-commercial venue like ACMI. Now ACMI shows many films not seen elsewhere, but I still think there's a reluctance to show challenging material that the Lumiere once did and perhaps the Chauvel still does.

Lamenting the demise of the Lumiere, I started writing an essay about that venue a couple of months ago, but haven't found the time to finish it. I'll get around to it one of these days.

Geist said...

The Lumiere is greatly missed. Not so much for its support of "radical" film, but for that feeling of having small cinemas in town that one could go to on a whim.
Certainly they would have shown Ceylan's Iklimler; or Rivette's L'histoire de Marie et Julien. Poetic works.
Small cinemas feel welcoming, and even "hidden". Cinema in a crack in the wall.

Paul Martin said...

I agree, Geist. As I mention in my unyet published post about the Lumiere, I didn't like some of the more 'radical' films screened at the Lumiere, but welcomed the fact that those films had a venue at which they could be seen.

Iklimer is certainly a film that would have been completely at home at the Lumiere and would have found a market. I recently started a new job a few doors from the old Lumiere and walk past it at lunch times. It was only two weeks ago that the old seating was removed, and it's currently under construction. I'm assuming that it's being used by the Queensland University next door.

It's interesting what you say about small cinemas. My preferred venue is the Kino for a number of reasons, and the staff are quite friendly (something the Lumiere lacked, which may have contributed to its demise). With its 14 screens, the Nova has more extensive programming but I avoid it at peak times when it feels like a cinemaplex.

Geist said...

haha i wasn't go to say anything, but now that you have mentioned it yourself: yes, the Lumiere was always good for a browbeating from the staff. "you want to buy a ticket? pfft, tourist."
they don't make them like that anymore. also, the only place where i could credibly be seen in my black clothes.
I suspect it didn't add to its demise though, it was probably one of those nasty economies of scale issues that made them unprofitable. the nova escaped by going multiplex and showing the very turgid French films that you described above. the westgarth is going that way, too, so has that cinema in Camberwell, etc.

Paul Martin said...

Yes, there was one woman in particular, with glasses (she looked like a librarian) who had that attitude you mention exactly. Now, I'm a fairly outgoing kind of person, and I often attempt to strike up conversation with cinema staff. Kino - always responsive. Nova - generally responsive. Lumiere - there was nothing I could do ever to engage that woman in conversation.

I went there, in spite of its grungy anti-consumer aesthetics because I loved the quality and off-beat nature of the films. But at a time when other arthouse cinemas were booming, I think the combination of the physical appointments and the poor customer attitude must have had a negative impact.

'That cinema' in Camberwell is a Village cinema (the Rivoli). I don't begrudge the Nova and Palace cinemas their middle-of-the-road programming. The mediocre films make the profits that enable them to screen the more interesting but less profitable films. It just means one has to be selective, whereas at the Kino or previously at the Lumiere, one could be reasonably safe seeing anything showing 'sight unseen' and not getting stuck with a 'dog'. Or even if it's a dog, it's usually an interesting dog. ;)