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pages from a cold island: THE ROAD OF EXCESS

Four and a half years of watching films several times a week ... I can hardly believe in that life of the distant thirties now, a way of life which I adopted quite voluntarily from a sense of fun. More than four hundred films ... all those Empires and Odeons of a luxury and a bizarre taste which we shall never see again. How, I find myself wondering, could I possibly have written all these reviews?
—Graham Greene, preface to The Pleasure Dome, 1972

April, some say, is the cruelest month. But February is definitely the shortest. Apart from leap years, it consists of twenty-eight little days arranged in four neat weeks of seven, boasting a pleasing symmetry which those vulgar and bloated 31-day months can't dream of matching. A symmetry that's pleasing to anal-retentive sorts such as myself, the kind of critic who keeps a careful list of all the films that he or she—and, in such cases, it's almost always "he"—sees.

My diary for February 2010 records that I saw 53 films in cinemas during February 2010, starting with Chris Petit's Content at the Venster theatre/cinema in Rotterdam on Tuesday 2nd, concluding with Michael Hoffman's The Last Station at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle on Saturday 27th February.

That "headline" figure of 53 does include several walkouts: ten, to be precise, all of them from either the Rotterdam film festival (which I attended from February 2nd to 6th) or the Berlin equivalent (11th-18th). For various reasons, I tend to have much more patience with films I see in a non-festival environment: whether these be public screenings for which I've purchased a ticket (in Feb '10, that meant only Precious and The Last Station, I'm ashamed to say); or press-showings in cinemas close to home (Extraordinary Measures, Sunderland, Tuesday 23rd February).

Still, even if I treat February as a 43-film month rather than a 53, it's still a ridiculously large tally in the general scheme of things. I recall reading about research that revealed the average adult citizen of the United Kingdom goes to the cinema once each year. Of course, it's likely that a high percentage—perhaps even a majority—never go at all, and that those who do attend go along several times a month. Even so, it would still be relatively unusual to find a British "punter" who paid to see 43 films in the course of 2010, let along during a single month.

Then again, I'm not exactly a "civilian" in such matters nowadays. I attended Rotterdam and Berlin with press accreditation, filing copy from both for Tribune and Jigsaw Lounge; and from Berlin for The Auteurs and The Hollywood Reporter. In addition, I kept an eye out for titles that might be suitable for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which runs June 16-27 this year, and for which I've been working in a programming capacity since last autumn.

The Edinburgh "gig" runs in parallel with my long-running engagement as International Programming Consultant for another big UK festival—the Bradford International Film Festival (16-28 March), and my presence on the "programming boards" of the festivals in Tromsø, Linz (Crossing Europe), Ljubljana and Lisbon (IndieLisboa). In terms of other film professionals—journalists and/or programmers—seeing 43 or 53 films per month is far from unusual, especially if that month involves two major film-festivals such as Rotterdam and Berlin (which used to have more of a breathing space between them).

But still there is the fear of overdosing on cinema—exposing oneself to such a bombardment of images and ideas that the power of individual films is blunted, partly because barely have the end-credits rolled on one before you're clip-clopping along to the start of the next, especially at the Berlinale. I find that note-taking—ideally during the film itself—is a major help in keeping my reactions and memories in some kind of order, particularly in a film-festival environment where one may well be squeezing six or seven features into  a single day.

And, as we say in Britain, "forewarned is forearmed." When thinking about and writing on film, I'm always conscious of C.L.R. James's question from his classic book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" (itself an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's quotation about those who know of England). To me, film only makes sense as part of a wider world, and to sequester oneself into screening-room after screening-room can only lead to an unhealthy narrowing of perspective. It's the old Henri Langlois distinction between cinéphile (film-lover) and cinéphage (literally "film-eater"), the latter primarily concerned about keeping up his (or her) record of seeing 300 or 400 or 600 films per year, with considerations of quality a poor second.

Or am I the worst kind of cinéphage, the self-deluding variety? I started tallying up my cinema visits in 1996, when my 36 outings included three trips to Heat and two apiece to Twister, Mission Impossible, Twister, Independence Day, The Last Supper and From Dusk Till Dawn (how bravely I flouted Pauline Kael's professional approach of only ever seeing films once!) By 2000, when I started reviewing films on a relatively assiduous basis, the total had leapt to 131, passing into the 200s from 2001 to 2007, then into the 300s since 2008.

These figures make me remember the original strapline of Empire magazine when it launched in the UK back in 1988—"You've been watching too many movies," and also the title of Mike d'Angelo's website, The Man Who Viewed Too Much. My total for the entire decade of the 2000s is 2357 (including walkouts)—and I've reviewed all bar about 50 of those for Jigsaw Lounge and other outlets, plus several hundred more seen via DVD and on TV.

The decade is now complete, I no longer feel the need to review everything that I see. To borrow a frame of reference from Matsumoto Hitoshi's magnificent Symbol (Shinboru) (2009), which I caught at Tromsø in mid-January, and which is the most impressive of the new films I've seen this year (cagey, spoiler-free quasi-review here), those ten years represented The Education, and I am trying to move forward into what Matsumoto called The Implementation.

What this will consist of, I'm still not sure (a blue wall covered in strange appendages seems a rank outsider). Avoiding the need to cram six films into every day of a film-festival is one way forward. Writing more often for money than pro bono is another. Trying to get some kind of full-time job related to film also appeals—I've always had to supplement my writing, travelling and viewing actitivies by means of my main employment, a well-remenurated occupation which concerns an entirely unrelated field. Let's just say I'm open to suggestion, open to offers—and, as the hapless pyjama-clad protagonist of Symbol discovered, life does have a habit of catching one by surprise...

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction
—William Blake, 1793

 

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"pages from a cold island" is a monthly dispatch from the British film scene by Neil Young.

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