The Politics and Poetics of Obsolescence: Brunch with Thomas Elsaesser

An interview with master academician Thomas Elsaesser.
Michael Guillen

Dedicated in solidarity to Béla Tarr.

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During my stint with the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute, I learned that the original context of the "symposium" was a strategic shift away from hierarchy to insure that all participants involved were on an equal plane, side by side, "rubbing shoulders" with each other.  Not only is such parity a welcome approach to learning; but, its suggestion of sensorial pleasure by physical proximity (often with food or drink in hand) is an essential element.  This is why I feel pleasure when I am learning from someone else, especially someone of such unique brilliance that—when I rub shoulders with them—I feel that some of their brilliance might rub off on me: like the pollen that is the rhyme and reason of cross-pollination.

Thus I am deeply grateful to the organizers of last weekend's UC Berkeley international symposium on silent cinema—Cinema Across Media: The 1920s—for granting a non-academic an interview with master academician Thomas Elsaesser whose generosity of time during such a busy event deserves noted respect.  Equal thanks to Laura Horak and Althea Wasow for their facilitations.

Though I asked a few questions of selfish interest, I can't categorize my conversation with Thomas Elsaesser as an "interview" per se.  I mainly wanted to make sure he was fed between panels so we rushed across the street from the Berkeley Art Museum to Henry's where Thomas—he insisted I address him by his first name—ordered the Cal scramble.  Clearly, I got the best end out of this deal however.  Thomas Elsaesser got a couple of scrambled eggs; but, I got an education.

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MICHAEL NOTEBOOK: Thomas, I come to your work by way of Dina Iordanova who invited me to contribute a paper to the second volume of the Film Festival Yearbook.  Through that collaboration I became aware of your role in the development of film festival studies and read several of your essays, especially your valuable programmatic essay "Film Festival Networks: The New Topographies of Cinema In Europe".  One could say, in fact, that you are the cornerstone of this new film festivals curriculum.  Can you speak to how film festival studies came about and your involvement?

THOMAS ELSAESSER: I suppose I was quite early in trying to think through what was a festival network and how important was it?  It was part of a larger project called Cinema Europe.  The Cinema Europe project was something that came out of my position at the University of Amsterdam where I was given the money and asked to provide the intellectual support and, indeed, initiate—as it turns out—a project that would help a lot of the junior colleagues of my department because we were very rapidly expanding.

I knew I wanted to do something about festivals because I got the sense that festivals were what kept any semblance of European cinema together.  They had a long pedigree within Europe as well through the major festivals all being in Europe, but they were also in the process of transforming themselves by taking European cinema into World cinema—there's another direction: transnational cinema—so I picked one of the best people that I have, a woman named Marijke de Valck, to work with her on film festivals.

In many cases—in order to give these students some sense of what it is that I was after—I had to write.  So I wrote a number of position pieces on all these different aspects.  Some of that—most of that—ended up in my book European Cinema: Face to Face With Hollywood, which was a combination of some of those new position pieces, whatever you want to call them, and other articles.

NOTEBOOK: One of my recent interests in film festivals is the importance of national cinemas within festival programming and—to use a case study—the specific criticism levied against the programming staff of the Toronto International Film Festival for doing away with retrospectives of national cinema in favor of a new City to City programme that fosters an urban cinema studies approach.  Do you have a take on the controversy surrounding that shift of perspective in festival programming?

ELSAESSER: Yes!  It's one that also came up this year at the Pusan Film Festival in South Korea where I served on a jury panel.  They don't usually invite academics—it's mainly actors, producers, filmmakers and so forth—but one of the reasons they invited me and some other curators, such as John Cooper from Sundance, was because they wanted to pick my brain about festivals and what the future is for film festivals.  One of the issues was similar to what you're saying, though not exactly the same.  The Pusan Festival is famous for Asian and international avant-garde and independent cinema.  But also, the Koreans are very keen to establish their national cinema as a viable commercial cinema.  So they effectively have the policy that we had in Europe in the '60s with the New Wave, where the New Wave was sitting on top of what was still a viable genre-and-star cinema.  If Godard and Truffaut could use Jean-Paul Belmondo, it was because he was already well-known from commercial French cinema.  Or, for every Antonioni or Fellini that Carlo Ponti financed, he had to have a Sergio Corbucci making internationally-successful spaghetti westerns.  The New Wave really collapsed when there no longer was that viable substrata still there.

In Asia, in Hong Kong as another example, they've been fairly successful at almost the same time as Europe; but, in other countries—the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea—they're about 10 or 15 years behind, or even 20 years in that cycle, if you like.  Pusan is now very concerned with maintaining this dual perspective.  They're fully aware that is how they can maintain.  Now, that's where—on one hand—they need the festival to be a national showcase, as in Rotterdam.  Rotterdam is the most important festival for Dutch filmmakers, not because they're shown in competition but because the festival always programs a sidebar to showcase Dutch films, as indeed in Toronto it's very important to bring together the Canadian films—the English-speaking and the French-speaking; it's the only time they get together—to show their work, their films, to the international critics and hopefully distributors as well.

So the festivals always had—at least recently—this double function: it's a showcase for the national but it's also there to bring constituents or, if you like, actors that are both part of the international film industry and filmmaking, and not part of it.  It's like a membrane.  And one of the most interesting things is how festivals negotiate their relationship to Hollywood.  On one hand, they need Hollywood; on the other hand, they have to have a discourse that's basically anti-Hollywood because they are the face of the independent film.

The Pusan Film Festival has been very successful for the last 20 years or so; but, now there are problems.  The problem is, obviously, financing, because a lot of the money comes from—well, it has to come either from the Federal government, the national government, or the municipality or locality—and what's happening in Pusan and, I imagine, what's happening in Toronto as well, is that the city puts in a lot of money and wants to have some say about what it will be getting out of it.  In one sense what they get out of it—as we know from Cannes and so on—is tourism, filling hotel capacities in tourist resorts through the off season.  Pusan is exactly that. Pusan is very interesting.  It's a gigantic steel town and one of the biggest harbors of Southeast Asia; but, it's also one of the most wonderful beaches in the world.

This just goes to show how many forces are at play to sustain a festival of that kind.  So what's common between Rotterdam, Pusan and Toronto—where I've never been so I don't really know enough about it—is that they have to prove that what they do at the festival time is attractive to local audiences.  That's the easiest way—apart from the tourism—to show that the festival is making a useful contribution.  As you know, Cannes doesn't have audiences.  Nobody can just go up to a box office and buy a ticket at Cannes.

NOTEBOOK: I've always thought that was so strange....

ELSAESSER: No, that has its own logic.  But festivals that were started in the '70s are almost invariably the ones with audiences and Berlin in the '80s made a major change.  It's now a festival publique, a festival for an audience.  But that puts a tremendous strain on festivals because—the more they go for a popular audience—the less they can actually offer things that are experimental, a bit off, and they must make sure that there's enough spread there to be attractive.  So that may be one of the issues behind the programming shift in Toronto.  Pusan has a big difficulty now in that the government is cutting back.

There's another structural problem in festivals.  A film festival—in order to attract international critics and international attention—has to have world premieres.  There are now so many festivals—even "A" festivals—that there just aren't enough films of that kind of quality that used to justify running a festival only with world premieres, or even international premieres—international premieres are when a film is for the first time being shown outside its country of origin (i.e. it's the opposite of national premiere)—so what you see is a lowering of the quality.  The only way you can now get world premieres—the 20 or 30 that you need for a festival—is to lower the threshold because everyone is bidding for world premieres.  That's a crunch that I don't think individual festivals can solve by themselves because they are in competition with each other over those world premieres.  So they would have to get together and basically be a cartel that says, "Look, we really have to manage this, these world premieres, because we can't have them all," although (as we know) Cannes will never agree to any kind of deal like that.  [Laughs.]  Like the Americans on any trade deal or human rights: "You can do it but we're of a separate species."

So that was one of the issues we discussed at Pusan in great length.  It's a serious issue.

NOTEBOOK: When you talk about the lowering of the standard or the broadening of the standard, is that anywhere more evident than in the spectacular dimension of international film festivals?  Is this the necessary negotiation with Hollywood required to help finance a festival and keep it viable?  Citing Toronto again, this has been an increasing complaint: that Hollywood and the gala premieres are taking over the personality of the festival.

ELSAESSER: That's a slightly different issue.  I agree that—from an American perspective—that's how it looks.  But I would use a different paradigm for that—a paradigm that I think applies to festivals—and that is creative outsourcing.  In other words, it's an extension of what I was saying about world premieres.  Talent does not multiply unless you fertilize it in very special ways.  The way that European festivals have fertilized talent is that they have actually invited filmmakers with their first film.  Rotterdam especially has nurtured talent by taking the first film of a promising new filmmaker.  It then sticks with this filmmaker by awarding prizes—not in the form of an Oscar® statuette—but prizes that provide funding or co-funding, giving cash for this director's or filmmaker's next project.  Either he develops a script or they support the project in some other way, but then—as it were—they buy the right of first refusal for this person's next film.

So you actually say, "Okay.  I need to plan for my future world premieres and I have to take the risk that I may be backing someone who is just a one-hit wonder and not the next Wong Kar-wai.  This is the kind of policy that curators and directors now have to think very hard of where they're going to place their money, just like cities have to think where they're going to put their money.  So they create other forms of events.  Cities are in the business of creating events.  I call that "the program of the city"; not only the built environment but the program of the city.  If you're involved with any cultural aspect of a city, you have to say: "How can I make sure something interesting happens every other week?  Both for our own people and for the tourism to sustain a leisure industry to sustain hotels, cafés and the rest of it?"  So festivals of any kind have to multiply, which was a boon in many ways—it really made culture a growth area in western economy—but, it also puts a strain on a lot of things.  Some types of festivals have now found they've come up against competition.

Festivals used to be a very easy way to create culture because, relatively speaking, it's cheap to put on festivals, compared to orchestras or theatre troupes.  But now there are all kinds of other types of events, very often having to do with music or literature for so-called latté cities or universities.  You know that here in Berkeley there's something going on every day, which in turn differentiates and diversifies what a festival can be about.  That's also one of the issues for the city; but, for the festivals, it really is: "How can we in the long term secure creative talent?"

What Hollywood has done is to use Sundance, and now Toronto, as its talent campus.  It can choose and cherrypick.  On one hand, that's a natural food chain; but, on the other hand, it's a kind of ecology that can seriously damage the local.  Metaphors that are derived somewhat from ecology actually help us to understand some of these peculiar phenomenon if you find yourself asking: "Why are they doing this?" or "Why are they doing that?"

But I haven't answered your question about what happens to national cinemas within these programmatic shifts.

NOTEBOOK: I'm satisfied.  Can you speak to the nostalgic preoccupation of certain cinephiles with national cinemas of the past?  I'm particularly struck by your comment about the New Wave's belated influence on the formation of the Pusan International Film Festival.  How is it that the New Wave still has the ability to form, shape and navigate film culture even today, all these years later, all these decades later?

ELSAESSER: The New Wave has been the template for so many emerging national cinemas.  If you come from a country that has had, for instance, a fairly consistent film industry but of films that outside their own country nobody knows and nobody wants to see—we always quote India but the Philippines have a huge indigenous film industry, Egypt as we know, Thailand as well—but, the moment that you then have a generation that has a chance to go to a film school in California or New York or somewhere else, when they go back they want to start a new wave.  That's their model.  There is no other model for saying, "How can I go back to my own country and do something that is not the industry and is not television?"  It has to be a new wave.  If you like, the festival and the idea of new wave are part and parcel of the same thing.  They sink together and they swim together.  In other words, if you say "festival" you say "new wave" but the New Wave was created not in those countries but were created in festivals, mainly in Cannes.  The French New Wave was created in Cannes, not in Paris.

NOTEBOOK: So you don't think that it's unfair to newer filmmakers that cinephilic audiences receive new films by way of this nostalgic model?  You're saying to me they actually use this model to develop their own work?

ELSAESSER: There are two things.  One is—and Jonathan Rosenbaum is a good example of somebody who knows about the temptation and dangers of his own nostalgia—that nostalgia is big business.  Without making that too frivolous, this is something I will be mentioning in my lecture today as well, something I call "the politics and poetics of obsolescence"....  [Elsaesser's eyes gleam with self-bemusement.]

NOTEBOOK:like it!

ELSAESSER: [Chuckling.]  I hope they do as well.  It's having its world premiere today.

NOTEBOOK: I guess I feel some reservation about the nostalgic attention on the French New Wave because I want to focus on what's new now.

ELSAESSER: But, as you know, nothing ages faster than the new.  So you have to be very careful that you're not in some kind of eternal return where you're just following everything that comes up on your horizon because it's new and giving it value just because it's new.  You have to have a pedigree and you have to have a tradition and you have to have a history in order to relate to what's new.  Just because the new comes up from something doesn't mean it's ruptured from something.

I spend a lot of time looking at video art and cinema's after-life in museums and galleries.  Yesterday I skipped part of the afternoon to go to the SFMoMA.  What strikes me is that a lot of artists today either directly plagiarize things that were done in the '70s and '80s or they're reinventing them without knowing that particular issue.  I can go into a museum and I can say, "Ah, this is Dan Graham 1974, this is Yoko Ono."  I just go through and spot these connections and I'm not the only one.  It's not my speciality.  I'm a film historian more than I'm an art historian.  I'm sure that art historians discover even more templates that are now being used without necessarily acknowledging their predecessors.  That's the danger of the new.  It can actually be the old in a different guise, see?

NOTEBOOK: Thanks for that cautionary corrective.  It leads me to once again consider a similar term that has confused me in recent months: contemporary.  What is a contemporary film?  What would you consider to be a contemporary film?

ELSAESSER: I have no idea what—in this particular context—"contemporary" might mean.  I do know there's a movement—maybe you're even part of it—that's been called the "contemporary contemplative film."  This is the focus of one of the websites I've looked at recently.

NOTEBOOK: Most likely Harry Tuttle's Unspoken Cinema?

ELSAESSER: It's the first time I've come across the term contemporary in a very specific context, namely films that allow your eye to invest in the image, immersing yourself, not being driven by action, not being driven by the cutting.  They have a way of engaging with Deleuze's time-image.

NOTEBOOK: Returning to the complaint levied against the Toronto International Film Festival for shifting away from the more conventional (if expected) tradition of screening retrospectives of national cinemas in favor of developing a City to City program that pursues familiarity with urban cinema studies, I'm wondering now if the true complaint isn't actually based in the ongoing tension between film studies vs. cultural studies and the cinephilic concern that film festivals are being subverted by cultural studies?

ELSAESSER: That's a complaint one hears occasionally.  There are very different responses to that.  One is a technical one: in order for film studies to survive in universities, they have to broaden out.  There's a danger if you still only teach Renoir and Hitchcock and John Ford to your students.  That's not what interests them in contemporary media.  One of the ways that film studies, and literature, has gone is to broaden out into social concerns, politics, multiculturalism, race, gender, and nation.  In one sense, demanding more national cinema promotes and welcomes cultural studies, particularly from a European perspective.  But, of course, for a certain kind of hard-core cinephile, what matters are new waves and auteur-driven cinema, as indeed most film festivals are.  But many festivals that don't have the luxury, or the reputation of Cannes or Venice, are—in fact, if you like—cultural studies festivals.  They have themed retrospectives and programs that can be on genocide in Darfur or Rwanda, they may be on the destruction of the countryside in China, the depletion of rainforests, you name it.  Festivals—in order to create a coherence out of a very diverse program—sustain themselves by going for themes they deem to have a modicum of social relevance or topicality.  Even then, you're going to have one retrospective of Egyptian cinema after the other.  [Chuckles.]  If you want to invest your money right now in a festival idea, get to know Egyptian cinema.

NOTEBOOK: Really?  This is an inside tip?

ELSAESSER: Next year everyone will be asking, "Who can we invite from Egypt?"  It was like this with Iran, remember?  You can flaunt certain new cinemas in relation to their being in the spotlight in international news.

Now we're getting to the meat of the thought.  The situation with Central and Eastern Europe is that they of course have not been given the opportunity to form a sense of the nation, sometimes since the teens and the '20s. So there's a tremendous hunger and nostalgia for an identity based on the nation.  I call that "post-national nationalism."  In other words, the nationalism that—certainly in Eastern Europe—comes from within.  "We want to join the European Union and, once we join the European Union, then we can become nationalists."  That's often the case with the regionalists.  The European Union encourages regional autonomy, at least cultural autonomy, when in fact political nationalism is out of the question.  So some of the smaller Eastern European countries and most of the larger ones like Poland really behave the way that in Western Europe the Basque country or the Catalans in Barcelona or the Welsh in England behave.  In other words, within the larger European community they can now highlight their ethnic or regional differences again, whereas before there wasn't room.

So now we have to ask: Where does money for filmmaking come from?  It's all taxpayers money in one way or another.  Just like the festivals have to pay some attention to their locality and what the national government thinks should be done, European filmmakers play the national card because that is where the money is.  I could name Lithuania.  I could name the Czech Republic.  Slovakia.  Slovenia.  In all of those countries the filmmakers are very cynical about this as well.  They say, "Well, yes, festivals are where we get the money from to make films that represent us as a nation, but that's also the only way we can even enter the international festival circuit."  Some festival curator or director can slap on the title of a national new wave.  I don't want to reduce it to the economic, but it's complicated and a historically understandable but, nonetheless, politically problematic neo-nationalism that you see.  The question is whether festivals accommodate that.  Or whether they put their own agenda, which might be somewhat different.  Do you remember the Romanian cinema? Suddenly there was the New Romanian Cinema, you know?  Well, that was one of the most cynical promotional exercises I've witnessed in many years.

NOTEBOOK: Why do you say cynical?

ELSAESSER: Well, because it was actually a group of people saying, "We want to create a national cinema."  Again, I don't want to be too polemical or simplistic about this; but, the filmmakers that I've talked to are quite cynical about it.  Audiences, as far as I know, do not recognize themselves in those films.  That has been a problem with festival films almost since the '50s.  The new waves were very rarely popular in the countries from which they hailed.  I'm hesitating because I've spoken very much from a European perspective.  In a way this actually then gives oxygen and ammunition in the countries themselves, both to the anti-intellectual climate that says: "Why are we subsidizing these filmmakers that nobody wants to see?"; but, also gives sustenance to what I consider to be—and a lot of my friends, as well, in those countries—very reactionary forces; huge conservative anti-immigrant, xenophobia.  You have to ask yourself, "Is this a good thing to create films that for those inside the country are seen to be completely slanted towards one version of the national history or one ethnic group or what have you?"

NOTEBOOK: That shines light on recent concerns I've had about how to define a national cinema, especially since I focus on films from Latin America, where a film—let's say—is being billed as a new Argentine film, but much of its financing has come from Europe, the United States, even other Latin American countries who promote their own defined national cinemas.  I may have issues about accepting a film under the aegis of its national cinema; but, as you're presenting this argument, I can now see the strategy for why it is being promoted as a national cinema.

ELSAESSER: Or why certain people have an interest in maintaining that label?  But it is a label.  It's like a brand.  That's why I call it post-national.  They use the brand and the apparatus of nationalism, but it has very little to do with the nationalism of the 19th century or even very little to do with the great auteurs like Ingmar Bergman, who stood for Sweden.  You know the Swedes detested the fact that he stood for Sweden? [Laughs.]  So, it's all those issues.

Another example that's not quite Europe, but adjacent, is the New Israeli Cinema.  If you look at the funding of the New Israeli Cinema, it's totally European.  All the money comes from German television, ARTE and a couple of other TV stations.

NOTEBOOK: Toronto's City to City focus on Tel Aviv was a highly controversial launch of that program.

ELSAESSER: And it's equally controversial at home.  Not so much for the people who think that Israelis think it's bad, they'd rather see some comedy, or what have you; but, because they think these filmmakers have been bought by Europe to badmouth Israel.  Israeli nationalism—in that embattered situation that Israel is in—is again something slightly different from, let's say, Slovenia.  But the national cinema promoted by festivals can produce all kinds of backlash at home.  I taught in Tel Aviv a year ago and I actually said, "Okay, let's do Israeli cinema," of which I knew very little, but I just found out of my own interest in festivals with dynamic post-nationalist nationalism that it was too fascinating to let this opportunity slip and to not find out from the people there.  That was an incredible learning curve for me to understand just how differentiated and how complex these issues are, even when a film is very successful (like Waltz with Bashir).  It usually takes only one film to suddenly create a national cinema with a new wave effect; but, that is the construction of curators and programmers at festivals.

NOTEBOOK: Well, Thomas, thank you so much for taking the time to have brunch with me today.  We should get you back to the conference.

ELSAESSER: It's good to know that people like yourself devote love, time, energy to cinema.  That itself I would say is already cinephilia.

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