It has been more than a year since this editorial space filled with speculations about streaming films and the closing of theaters. It was with distinct excitement, then, that I began to read the reopening announcements. The beloved Paris Theater in New York City, with its lease now held by Netflix and with programming selected by former Museum of the Moving Image curator David Schwartz, trumpeted an Al Pacino retrospective. The Film Forum, that mainstay of downtown New York tastemaking, announced its theater’s reopening while retaining its virtual marquee, too.
It is a human habit, perhaps, to project the present into the future—a default mode that drives forward even when the road has crumbled. So it was with film in Year One of the pandemic, characterized by a state of denial shaded with panic. By the end of 2020, film festivals were adjusting their schedules according to an imaginary “after” as if the vaccine were set to materialize imminently, universally, and magically everywhere, to step out from behind the curtain and restore life to what it used to be: movie theaters open, film festivals under way.
Over the first months of the pandemic, the internet filled with streaming playlists, Zoom masterpieces, and classic revivals. The litany of canceled or virtual film festivals had become the new normal, with everything from SXSW to Cannes to Telluride called off or moved entirely online, and then evolving into hybrids or customized drive-ins.
This editorial was written on the Fourth of July, that annual orgy of barbecues and tin-hat patriotism made worse this year by the unprecedented arrival in US cities of bomb-grade fireworks—explosives that shook the ground, sending dogs cowering and possibly softening up the urban population for a battlefield future. This appears, however, in the FQ issue emerging just prior to the 2020 US presidential election, an event destined to change the future of this country and the world and, yes, the film and TV world, in ways that are equally unpredictable, confusing, and terrifying.
There is no such thing as business as usual now. And most certainly, no film as usual: every festival canceled, every movie theater dark, as the names of the closures and cancellations bring sadness and grief for curators and filmmakers, film critics and distributors, cinema owners and workers, film studies professors and students, and, yes, their audiences—all, of course, as of print time.
There was a dustup last fall over an op-ed by Martin Scorsese in the New York Times and his earlier interview with Empire magazine.1 Controversy erupted after he compared the movie franchises based on Marvel comic books to theme parks, saying they weren’t cinema, that he’d never go watch them, that they are ruining cinema. Hardly surprising! With the exception of his own delightful Hugo (2011) and his tireless World Cinema Project rescues of global film history, Scorsese is known for his own brand: a cinematic realism of hard streets, hard men, and hard mob battlegrounds, always set in specific pasts (New York, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Boston) and always etching the DNA of masculinity onto the screen with unfailingly precise craftsmanship.
Writing from Paris at the moment, a stone’s throw from the Archives Nationales, I can’t help but reflect on national character and the differences that span
Bruce Lee counseled: “Be water, my friend,” alternately translated as “Be like water.” The protests that engulfed Hong Kong in early summer drew inspiration from the great martial-arts star, as reported by columnist Nicolas Atkin. He detailed how Lee’s famous saying “has become a clarion call among the young protesters” and “inspired a new form of guerilla tactics … with protesters moving in unexpected waves, rolling from one spot to another.” At the same time, as Atkin reminded readers, Jackie Chan has become persona non grata among these same young people for his pro-Beijing politics, which have tarnished his reputation.
Film Quarterly can hopefully, with your help, contribute to the imperative to provoke, build, and revitalize the field of film and media studies beyond the acceptable and parochial, to push it to aim higher and think more creatively. Surely this is a time that demands not retreat, but the imagination to push forward and unsettle old assumptions. Where are the films and television and web series that can do that? FQ will keep looking, stay on the prowl, keep alert, and continue to bring reports and salutations, analyses and revelations, back to its readers.
News flash: recently, my faith in the power of film was restored. Paradoxically, this lift of spirits was occasioned by witnessing film’s power in cultures where it cannot be taken for granted, where threats and constraints make access fraught or impossible, where public assembly is more difficult yet ever more desirable than back home in the United States. As much as I love the joys and ease of streaming, the surprise of online discoveries, and the thrill of privilege when a DVD or Blu-ray lands unbidden in the mailbox, I am still a sucker for the theatrical experience and the transformative power of people assembling, all together in a hall, to share a screen.