Buffalo is full of people helping to cultivate cinema and we want to celebrate those involved. The Cultivators is a new monthly feature in which we highlight individuals who are integral to the presentation, promotion and production of film here in the queen city.
THE CULTIVATORS #007
Curator of riverrun Global Film Series
Professor of Film & Media Theory at SUNY at Buffalo
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
I think what got me interested in movies initially was the fact that I had to seek them out myself. Presently, we enjoy instant access to thousands of movies via such streaming services as Netflix, Fandor, Mubi, Hulu, or Amazon Video. The proliferation of digital technology has profoundly modified the production, distribution, and sharing of our culture today.
According to Lawrence Lessig, we now inhabit the “Read/Write Culture” (“RW”) as opposed to the “Read Only Culture” (“RO”) of the analogue age. Just a couple of decades ago people had to go out of their way to be able to watch a movie they wanted: in art movie houses or special screenings at film institutes or cinematheques, and on rare disk collections. I think this relative scarcity of quality films instigated my interest and motivated me in my search for these unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
For example, when I took classes at the Russian Institute of Cinematography (the first film school in the world founded in 1919 and the institution where Eisenstein, Kuleshov, and Pudovkin taught film), this was one of very few locations to watch art movies in Moscow. We still have some remnants of that bygone era reflected in film festivals such as The Nitrate Picture Show held at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. This festival has been called “the world’s most dangerous film festival,” as nitrate-based film is highly flammable and one has to have special equipment and trained specialists in order to project it. It is an experience that can’t be really recreated or repeated. First of all, you can’t watch a nitrate-based film on a streaming website, it’s only possible at a special place like the George Eastman Museum. Also, every time you watch a nitrate-based film, it will be different, as watching a film being projected, according to Eastman curator Paolo Cherchi Usai, is literally watching it die in front of our eyes.
There was an art café in Moscow, Russia, which I frequented regularly when I used to live there (there’re many similar places in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg). This café often organized literary events, poetry readings, and film screenings (think of ciné-clubs in France). This is where I watched Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love for the first time, a cathartic experience for me, which made me realize that movies can be different, that they are not always Hollywood blockbusters screened in multiplexes. This was a film in which what is important is not what happens but how it happens.
People were allowed to smoke inside such cafés, and this smoke was hanging over the screen like in early phantasmagorias. It resonated with the shots in the film itself, in which the cigarette smoke rises up in the air lengthened by the slow-motion effect, Wong Kar-wai’s signature mark. Coupled with diffused light, it created an unreal dream-like atmosphere on screen, which was a way for the filmmaker to evoke an intangible experience of love. I think that’s when I fell in love with cinema as an art form, too. In other words, In the Mood for Love put me “in the mood for movies.”
Since then I have become a sort of cinematic hoarder, as I now consciously collect movie-related experiences. Whenever I travel to a new place (another passion of mine), I try to find cinematic activities to engage in: visiting a giant Camera Obscura or taking an Alfred Hitchcock tour in San Francisco, California; going on a tour of the Fox Theater (a former movie palace) in Atlanta, Georgia; scouting film locations for Jaws on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; or perusing a collection of pre-cinematic optical devices at the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt. All of this is a big part of my movie-making memories.
I currently teach film and media theory in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo. In Russia, teaching Film Studies is only possible at special institutions like The Russian Institute of Cinematography, while in the US film classes are an important part of university curricula.
In addition to the Ph.D. in English that I already had from Saint-Petersburg, Russia, I got an MA in Film Studies and another Ph.D. in Media Study from UB after I came here. In my teaching, I try not only to communicate my love and passion for cinema to my students, but also show them how the medium of film can empower open consciousness. I firmly believe in promoting a cross-cultural understanding through the artistic medium of film and I think it can come to our rescue during the moments of political upheaval, such as the one we find ourselves in today.
This past October I curated the inaugural riverrun Global Film Series at the Burchfield Penney Center in Buffalo. It was sponsored by the nonprofit organization riverrun, dedicated to the arts and culture in Western New York and the Department of English at UB. Changes in global communication are leading us to re-examine our notions of culture today and I think that we all need to reflect on our own existence in a globalized networked world. This was my vision as the curator of the film series: to bring films to Western New York that would change people’s perceptions of a particular country and let them form their own unique visions of what life is like there, as opposed to the stereotypes and misconceptions propagated by mass media channels.
This year the film series focused on Iran; next year we plan to bring films from Cuba. A lot of people approached me to say how our inaugural film series on Iran changed their view of the country itself, which was very rewarding for me to hear as a curator. This event is also different from other ventures in that it is not a film festival but a film series, as we would like to offer our audience a rich learning experience.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement Image, 1986; Cinema 2: The Time Image, 1989. I love Deleuze’s unique approach to cinema as a form of philosophy. Every time I re-read his books, I find new things in them.
In addition, I highly recommend books by these prominent women film theorists:
- Laura Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, 1999, Touch: Sensuous Theory And Multisensory Media, 2002
- Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, 2004
- Patricia Pisters, The Neuro-Image: A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen Culture, 2012
I also regularly read such film journals as Film-Philosophy, Camera Obscura, Alphaville, Film Criticism, Film Quarterly, Screen, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Cinema Scope, and Senses of Cinema.
TOP TEN FILMS
My taste in movies is very international in scope, which is reflected in my selections below (not in any particular order):
- In the Mood for Love , directed by Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong
- La Jetée , directed by Chris Marker, France
- Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors , directed by Sergey Paradjanov, Russia
- Persona , directed by Ingmar Bergman, Sweden
- The Garden , directed by Jan Švankmajer, Czech Republic
- Where Is the Friend’s Home? , directed by Abbas Kiarostami, Iran
- Le Bal , directed by Ettore Scola, Italy
- Woman in the Dunes , directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan
- Divine Intervention , directed by Elia Suleiman, Palestine
- The Tree of Life , directed by Terrence Malick, USA
- Tampopo , directed by Juzo Itami, Japan
Film stills from left to right, top to bottom are the Russian Institute of Cinematography, the George Eastman House, In the Mood for Love, Jaws (© 1974 Andy Fligor), Deutsches Filmmuseum, Downpour, Tales, and Hair.