Film Culture’s Tentative Future

On Film / The Daily — Apr 1, 2020
Detail from the cover of the Fall 1963 issue of Film Comment featuring a still from Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le joli mai (1963)

We keep hoping that the impact of this crisis on the film community—the movie theater closures, the festival cancellations, the production shutdowns—will be temporary. Talking to the heads of film institutions all across the country, from Sundance to the Austin Film Society, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn has gathered a series of assessments that sound very much like Seattle International Film Festival artistic director Beth Barrett’s: “We don’t have a clear path forward. We will be down to a skeleton staff that will keep the organization moving forward, and doing some interesting thinking about what the future holds.”

Kohn’s article appeared just hours after Lesli Klainberg, executive director of Film at Lincoln Center in New York, posted a dire announcement late Friday afternoon. “Regretfully,” she wrote, “I must report that we have taken the unprecedented step of furloughing or laying off approximately fifty percent of our full-time staff, as well as all of our part-time staff.” That alone is a hard blow, but further down the page came a single sentence that set off alarms among cinephiles: “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.”

Twitter blew up. One bittersweet meme took hold as scores of loyal Film Comment readers each posted the cover from the magazine’s archive that corresponded to the month of his or her birth—something of a cross between a lament and a celebration of all that the magazine has meant to readers over the years. Film Comment has retweeted several of these, turning its account into a virtual gallery. When FC turned fifty in 2013, Max Nelson wrapped a magnificent five-part history with the argument that “the magazine’s main duty has been to prove that film criticism deserves to be written (and, for that matter, read) with patience, reflection, and dedication—the same way, in other words, that films deserve to be watched.”

On Friday night, FLC deputy executive director and Film Comment publisher Eugene Hernandez tweeted an admission that “we made a mistake. We should have said more clearly that FLC is not killing Film Comment—in fact our decision this week is to try to save it.” Hernandez says that he will be spending this week working out plans for an eventual return from the hiatus with the editorial team led by Nicolas Rapold.

The best assessment of our precarious current moment in film culture comes from Nick Pinkerton, who has recently launched a newsletter via Substack, where, just last week he noted that he feared that some cultural institutions may take advantage of this crisis “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.” Over the past several days, though, Pinkerton has “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.”

The Latest

The must-read essay many of us have been passing around since this past weekend is David Roth’s piece for the New Yorker on Todd Haynes’s “masterpiece,” Safe (1995). Julianne Moore plays Carol White, a housewife (she prefers the term “homemaker”) who begins suffering debilitating symptoms of a mysterious disease. The year is 1987, but as Dennis Lim notes in his 2014 essay accompanying our release, “Haynes refuses to make Safe simply a film about AIDS, and his sidelong approach, hardly a result of skittishness, allows him to scrutinize his most provocative themes—the stories we tell ourselves about sickness, the need for control even if it is an illusion, the perverse comfort of culpability—beyond the trap of identity politics.”

Roth notes that Haynes, talking to Nick Davis in 2015 in, yes, Film Comment, noted that “all the film language in Safe should be telling you that nothing is resolved.” To which Roth adds: “Anyone watching this movie in this moment, shut away in their homes for the greater good but also for their own tenuous safety, will know the feeling . . . The film’s vision of a culture fundamentally incapable of comprehending or countenancing illness and weakness has insured that Safe has stayed not just unsettling but queasily current.”

Cinephiles looking for a longer read to hunker down with might turn to Spike Lee. Posting to Instagram, Lee says that, like all of us stuck at home, he’s had a lot of time to think about “life, what happened, what didn’t happen. And I began to think about one of my dream projects.” He’s decided to make his 1996 screenplay for Jackie Robinson, a film he hasn’t yet been able to realize, freely available. “This is a great American story,” he says. “I want to share this script with you . . . Be safe.”

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