Friday, September 14, 2012

Screening Half-Watched Films

Meeting with Kay Armatage

There seems to be something of an unwritten ethos of watching films through to the end at film festivals, of hearing (or seeing) them out. This has been true of the half dozen public screenings I've been able to attend so far: though the films have by no means been all of equal merit and/or quality, the audience has been notably concentrated, focused, and patient even with the inevitable longueurs of films like yesterday's Beyond the Hills and this morning's In the Fog. This may be different in the “P&I” (=Press & Industry) screenings, where business likely gets transacted during a film, the watching of which is itself a business transaction of sorts. And it is certainly different in that other “screening” process, which precedes the festival: as Kay Armatage confirmed in a conversation with our group for which she graciously took time out of her own busy festival schedule, the festival programmers rarely watch films through to the end. Armatage, a former TIFF programmer herself, remembers deciding on some unsolicited films on the basis of the first shot or two alone, and anyone faced with the amount of material that major festivals (and probably even smaller ones) need to screen in order to come up with the final line-up will ultimately have to be a much more pragmatic viewer than the patient audience, cutting her losses rather than waiting out a plot turn halfway into an otherwise uninspiring submission.
Of course, by definition, virtually all the films that end up on the festival program should merit our attention, but viewing them with the tension between programming decisions on the one hand and the audience’s (our) admirable patience in mind on the other makes for some very interesting experiences. As a festival goer I’m primed to give any film the benefit of the doubt – even if the first shots don’t grab me, I’ll wait it out, hoping for some payoff in terms of a particularly gripping story, a set of aesthetic choices that assert themselves a bit later in the film perhaps, a major surprise halfway through the film, or the discovery of an actor/actress who doesn’t appear until a few minutes in. Sometimes I’m rewarded (the lead actresses’ understated performance in Beyond the Hills, the crisp cinematography of In the Fog). But how did the film get that chance to convince me in the first place if it didn’t convince the programmer in the first few minutes? How is it that the programmer saw something where I wouldn’t have seen enough to go on? Why didn’t s/he “walk out” on the film when her/his job would have allowed, even demanded that, as opposed to our job of “sitting through” it as audience? Is it just a matter of taste? 

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