Thursday, October 8, 2009

2009 Flaherty Seminar: Part 1

Ideally I’d be getting this down as it’s happening (or shortly after), but as anyone who’s attended the Flaherty Film Seminar knows, there’s very little time there to write. The pace is both exhausting and invigorating, and the risk of drawing from memory is that certain particulars can get lost in the rush of sensation and passionate debate. An average Seminar day includes six to seven hours of screenings, and when not watching films or sleeping, most likely you’re discussing--while still processing--what you’ve just seen and heard.

Along with its intense schedule, the Flaherty puts both gourmands and recovering alcoholics to the test: the former, with what’s not there, and the latter, with what is. Meals are taken in the dining hall of the host college (Colgate University, this year and last), and like most cafeteria food... let’s just say it brings back memories. Drinks are served after the evening discussion at Bill’s Bar, so named for legendary MOMA film curator/librarian Bill Sloan; there, friends are made, beer is spilled, and conversation continues long into the night. Those needing sleep are best advised to spend a week somewhere else.

The cycle of meal/screening/group discussion is repeated thrice daily with occasional variations- that you can count on. What you can’t count on knowing is what you’ll see at a particular screening until the title credits appear. Aside from the name of the programmer and three or four featured filmmakers announced beforehand, the screening schedule is kept a closely-guarded secret.

The Flaherty's been likened by some to a cult (facetiously, for the most part), and by others to a family; founded back in 1955 to honor the memory of filmmaker Robert Flaherty, it operates on the principle of non-preconception, the idea being that approaching work blindly is the best way to combat whatever prejudices one might bring to a particular filmmaker, subject, or approach (as is shown in my next post.) This was a wise move on the part of Frances Flaherty and the Seminar’s co-founders, for it’s one of the few places where the self-imposed ignorance of the moving image community’s various splinter factions toward one another is directly confronted.

Despite the Seminar’s reputation for being anchored in the world of humanist documentary, a look at its history from the beginning reveals not just a commitment to challenging nonfiction filmmaking (early screenings of Jean Rouch’s
Le Maitre Fous and Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai are two of the better-known examples), but also to the avant-garde (like Robert Breer, Bruce Conner, and Gregory Markopoulos), along with the boundary-blurring work of Shirley Clarke, Peter Watkins, Robert Kramer, Su Friedrich, and countless others. Recently I learned that a most fascinating genre hybrid, and for me one of the revelatory treasures of the Seminar--Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (shown last year prior to its long-overdue commercial release), had originally been screened there shortly after its completion in 1961.

Hollis Frampton once described the beam of light emanating from a projector as, “all films... if we want to see what we call more, which is actually less, we must devise ways of subtracting, of removing, one thing and another, more or less, from our white rectangle.” To sit in a darkened theater on a bright sunny summer day to watch films of some bright sunny summer day somewhere else is at times fairly comical, and an inescapable part of the Flaherty experience. The Seminar hinges on the belief that, for that week at least, the benefits of partaking in this carefully chosen distillation of experience (and the various subtractions from that white rectangle) outweigh whatever’s lost in shutting out the world at large; this has certainly been my experience, and what follows are some thoughts on a few of the highlights from this year’s Seminar.

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