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The 55th London Film Festival,
dispatch #3: Red Carpetry
by Jerry Whyte

As I left the Vue cinema on Leicester Square after attending an early evening screening the other night, I bumped into American actress Anna Kendrick on the red carpet. I was heading home to gather my thoughts on Hard Labour, the fascinating Brazilian film I had seen; she was entering the cinema for a red carpet screening of 50/50, in which she stars alongside Angelica Huston and Seth Rogan. We didn't talk for long. I had been saying t'ra to a mate of mine at the box office and was, I later learned, breaching protocol by exiting by the entrance; she, presumably, had been working the crowd. It happened in a split second: at the instant of our head-on collision, I was dazzled by the bank of paparazzi to my left and startled by the baying crowd behind the barriers in front of me; she was wheeling to wave a final goodbye to her adoring fans ("Anna, Anna"). I'll be honest, I didn't know her from Fanny Adams at the time of our brief encounter. An efficient and officious security guard with a hard-edged glint in his eye stepped purposefully towards me as I muttered apologies to the equally startled starlet. His body language and glare made it plain that no impromptu interview would take place. No matter, no damage done, no big deal, apologies all round, even from the guard, whose manner softened when he glimpsed my press badge. It was an amusing, embarrassing moment of which Woody Allen might have made much.

I mention my brush with stardom simply because it highlights the unnatural hierarchy that applies at film festivals and in the celebrity culture at the heart of red carpet events, to which my thoughts were immediately diverted at the expense of Hard Labour. This year more than most, we are forced to question the extent to which red carpet culture distracts and detracts from the films themselves, and to ask how irrevocable is the emphasis placed on spectacle at the expense of cinema. Delegates receive regular e-mail alerts to "register red carpet interest" for press conferences and details of the 'talent' attending. In addition, the skillfully made promotional ad for this year's LFF – shown, as is now traditional, before each and every film screening – features a computer-generated red carpet rolling across London's streets and back passages, before arriving at the doors of 'a cinema near you'. Normally these festival ads act as a fortnight-long Chinese water torture on those of us who approach the LFF, of necessity, as a military campaign, those who have accepted the challenge to see as many films as is logistically possible, safe in the knowledge that many may subsequently vanish without trace. These rolling ads seem designed to drive dedicated cinephiles crazy; no matter how polished they are, their appeal inevitably fades after a dozen or so viewings. In the case of this year's ad – the central motif of which is repeated on fliers, posters, programmes and catalogues – the drip-drip pain of repetition is less intense because it set us a captivating 'answers on a postcard', 'name that street' puzzle, the answer to which might be Mornington Crescent. The guessing games come thick and fast. We are also left guessing what proportion of the LFF's £6 million pound budget is spent on 'selling' it, and if the reference to Albert Lamorisse's Le Ballon rouge in this year's ad was as intentional as the reference in last year's campaign to Godard's Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle.

The LFF marketing campaign also, accidentally, raises interesting questions about the role and importance of film journalism and journals. Running alongside the tradition of the LFF ad is that which sees Sight & Sound magazine devote its November issue to coverage of the annual film festivals in London, Toronto and Venice. Nick James discusses celebrity culture in his editorial within that edition of the magazine. His thoughts appear beneath the delightfully mischievous header "The Thick Red Pile," and beside a cheeky cartoon that depicts figures weighed down by purchases from a branch of the imaginary store, 'Carpets R Us' – 'mischievous' that is if James meant to hint that red carpet culture implies a rampant dumbing down, 'imaginary' that is if the cartoonist wasn't referring to existing stores of that name. James elegantly offsets Sight & Sound's commitment to cinematic diversity with a detached reminder of the importance of festivals to film culture, and of the importance of celebrities to festivals.

He pulls off a well-executed balancing act on a tightrope pulled taut between two opposing poles: one that supports the need for critical engagement and champions innovative international cinema; another that represents red carpetry and the need for accommodation with the commercial imperatives of the industry. James concludes his erudite, even-handed comments by suggesting that we can't hope to have our cake and eat it, or, to be precise: "you can't have your Béla Tarrs without your George Clooneys." If only the choice were between figures as admirable in their very different ways as those two figures. If only the contest between big budget mainstream films and often improvised independent films were a fair fight on a level playing field. If only more space were devoted to the tension in the tightrope and the space between the poles, which is to say, to combative critical engagement.

This is not to have a go at Sight & Sound, which, as an august journal of record, fulfills important functions other than the polemical. It is only right, proper and to be expected, for example, that Sight & Sound, as the house journal of the British Film Institute, should dedicate an issue a year to the LFF. I have read the magazine since I was a nipper, have been a member of the BFI since I arrived in London, and I long ago lost track of the number of LFFs I've attended. We can count ourselves blessed that our film culture contains Sight & Sound, the BFI and the LFF, but, that having been said, there is something of a conflict of interest here, as well as a danger that this golden triangle at the heart of British film culture might lead to occasional triangulation. I'm not asking for the moon on a stick, just for a wider range of film journals than is currently available and a more punchy debate on issues such as celebrity culture. As Chris Hitchins says in Letters to a Young Contrarian: "We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only, source of light. Reducing the sun to room temperature would decrease light to nothing, as well as generating a definite chill. The truth cannot lie, but if it could, it would lie somewhere between the two. On some grave questions, there is no difference to split."

Let controversy and contestation reign, and let's have out with it: celebrity culture is rooted in an anti-democratic culture of servility, is bad for our political health, and does deep damage to cinema. Film, as the art form of our age, is part of the general human process of creative discovery and communication. It shapes our thoughts as well as our feelings and is bound up with wider political realities, so it cannot face down its own inner demons, including celebrity culture, alone. It might, at least, be more attentive to the problem. Recognition that there is a problem would be a start on the road to recovery. We live in an age in which 'marketing spend' directs the public gaze. As Bob Dylan said, money doesn't so much talk as swear and scream. Celebrity culture won't disappear without the revolution in values that Dr King called for, but, rational folk of good will should take it on whenever and wherever possible, in film magazines, for instance. I've recently been re-reading Dialectic, a collection of essays written by critic Colin McArthur in the '70s, as I do every few years to recharge my batteries, so my mind is more focused than usual on changes within film culture between then and now. In his 1976 essay The Continuing Importance of the Journals, McArthur says: "One of the main indicators of the health or otherwise of a national film culture remains the number and seriousness of the journals it can sustain." In that essay, McArthur goes on to point out that Sight & Sound's dominance within British film culture had been challenged by Afterimage, Cinema, Cinemantics, Film Directions, Film Form, Film Review, Framework, Monogram, North by Northwest, Platinum and Screen. The final journal in that list thankfully survives, but the rest fell like skittles and have not been replaced. For those impatient of film coverage in the broadsheets and who regard the plugging copy of magazines like Empire with contempt, the options available in newsagents are limited.

I treasure my complete collection of Vertigo, a magnificent film magazine founded in 1993 by the late Marc Karlin, et al, with the expressed aim of being "more polemical than the review magazines, more critical than the trade press, and more accessible than the academic journals." Vertigo's first issue was published shortly after the death of Serge Daney, the legendary editor of Cahiers du cinéma, and included extracts from his diaries. In its day Vertigo hosted the thoughts on film culture of writers as brilliant and diverse as, to name but a few – John Berger, Chris Darke, Don Delillo, Gareth Evans, Sylvia Harvey, Laura Mulvey, Julian Petley, Iain Sinclair and Kieron Corless. It collapsed after its Arts Council grant was withdrawn and, although the good folk at Close-Up are doing their damndest to revive it, Vertigo left behind a gaping hole in British film culture that has only recently begun to be filled.

We now inhabit a new era, one in which citizen journalists are rushing to express themselves online. Nature abhors a vacuum and cinephile sites – like DVD Outsider – are fortunately rushing into that vacuum. Welcome though the growth in online cinephile communities is, these developments do, nonetheless, call to mind the first line in RS Thomas's salutary poem Period: "It was a time when wise men/Were not silent, but stifled/By Vast noise." Online spaces should exist alongside paper and paste publications that can command sizeable circulations and call out from the shelves of newsagents and bookshops. Even here there are hopeful signs of movement.

After a hard day on the hoof spent rushing from screening to screening, I was treated to a couple of reviving nips of Jameson's Irish whisky, gratis, from a stand promoting the brand. Festivals often mean free goodies. I was later given a free copy of a handsome one-off publication called Film. In its 32 well-presented, large format pages a array of filmmakers and critics were asked two questions: "Why does film matter?" and "What does the future hold for film?" This publication came courtesy of Intellect, a relatively new publishing venture dedicated to film, whose aim is "to provide a vital space for widening critical debate." Intellect follows in the footsteps of the estimable Wallflower Press. Take these two superb publishing projects; add in magazines like Little White Lies and Electric Sheep, preexistent academic journals and the plethora of online sites devoted to film; blend with independent distributors such as Artifical Eye, Second Run and Eureka!; and we see the emergence of something like a cinephile counter-culture emerging. That new culture treats cinema with the respect it deserves just as much as Sight & Sound, but it is more inclined to stick two fingers up to red carpet culture.



The 55th London Film Festival
Dispatch #3: Red Carpetry

article posted
17 October 2011

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