The Wisconsin native and Chicago Tribune film critic discussed the "State of the Cinema" at the Milwaukee Film Festival.
You can forgive the 2015 State of the Cinema address for striking a less triumphant note than in previous years at the MFF. This year’s guest, film critic Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune, noted previous keynote speakers J. Hoberman (MFF 2012) and The Dissolve (MFF 2013) had been summarily dismissed from their positions (although Hoberman landed on his feet nicely with the New York Times) leaving him feeling a bit of “survivor’s guilt” for remaining at his post.
But even with the cloud of film criticism’s ever-winnowing job security hovering over the proceedings, Phillips couldn’t help but be enthusiastic about the state of cinema, talking equally gracefully about his local childhood (born in Kenosha, raised in Racine), Milwaukee’s place in his cinematic upbringing, his work as a film critic and the importance of technique in the art of filmmaking.
Phillips approached the “grandiose headbanger” of a notion regarding the state of cinema through a free-flowing conversation that touched on numerous subjects. He shared a lovely anecdote about the “unique and discombobulating experience” of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time at the Oriental Theatre as an 8-year-old boy. The stunned silence the film generated between he and his mother on the car ride home helped frame his enthusiasm throughout, as he bounced between discussing cinema both classic and current (taking time to full burn the recently released Stonewall), and the different ways cinema is digested as the medium evolves (helpfully pointing out La Dolce Vita’s $20 million haul would equal approximately $250 million in today’s dollars, an unfathomable box office take for a foreign language picture).
His main concern for cinema going forward is what he deemed “cinematic amnesia” – a new generation of filmmaking talent coming up through the ranks with the means to make visually striking films at a lower cost than ever before (as he noted, “phones have made us all amateur filmmakers”) without having any knowledge of the previous techniques and ways of making films.
As a means of illustrating this point, Phillips played sequences from two films he is very fond of: 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum (directed by Paul Greengrass) and 1959’s North by Northwest (directed by Alfred Hitchcock). The Bourne sequence featured a hand-to-hand fight lasting 109 seconds; the clip from North by Northwest (the infamous crop duster sequence) ran ten minutes. Some in the audience had never seen Hitchcock’s film before and were made anxious and intrigued by its sense of stillness and measured pacing. It was instructive to see how differently we process imagery in today’s cinema. Greengrass’s not-even-two-minute fight sequence featured 122 separate shots, while Hitchcock’s sequence opens with an unbroken 40-odd second shot of a bus pulling up to a stop on a desolate stretch of road from a God’s eye view.
Phillips’ aim wasn’t to draw any immediate corollary between the two, instead pointing out the numerous Greengrass imitators who cannot replicate his sense of space and coherence. It is important to know when and how to move your camera and understand how editing dictates rhythm in filmmaking, and Phillips worries this art could be evaporating.
It was interesting to see Phillips unintentionally hit on many of the same topics as previous year’s guests. His belief that it’s hard to be morose about the state of cinema at a film festival was just as J. Hoberman had put forth three years prior; his comment that Jaws (which played Sunday afternoon at the MFF) would feel like a “moody, European art drama” if released today reflects Wesley Morris’ comments from last year that Jaws, if remade, would eliminate the character study and instead focus mostly on the shark.
It was heartening to have a question-and-answer session that featured genuinely interesting questions that covered how Phillips sees his role in championing obscure and foreign cinema, the way a film critic watches a film differently than a standard audience member, and even a brief sidebar as to the merits of Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice adaptation. As with previous keynote speakers, there were plenty of reasons given to worry for cinema’s future, but it’s impossible to do so when confronted with both a festival and lecturer who are working so diligently and eloquently to spread the gospel of cinema.