As the Edinburgh International Film Festival ends for another year, amid recriminations and denunciations, I thought I’d take a look at one aspect of its somewhat shrunken presence this year, extrapolating outwards to maybe establish a diagnosis of its ills…
Here we see the festival guide for 2011 sitting atop its equivalent from a previous year. Note the smaller size — an inevitable result, probably, of the massive loss in sponsorship this year. In fact, Fiona responded enthusiastically to the new “hand-bag-sized” book. And indeed, there’s no reason why the smaller size should be an insuperable problem.
But then we open the thing and search for content. And what we find is a seventy-five page delegate guide, with the films tucked away at the back. This offends me mightily — it makes the films seem like an afterthought, which indeed they appear to be. Worse, the guide provides no information beyond title, screening time, cast and crew. And there’s no index. And many short films, including mine, are not listed at all.
Now, every film accepted by the fest had to provide a synopsis, so there’s no reason at all why the guide couldn’t at least have included that. Space is not the issue, since shrinking or removing the delegate guide would have provided masses. What we have is a somewhat uncomfortable mix of two things, a list to help industry delegates find each other, and a catalogue of films screening. I take the view that the delegate guide should be a photocopied, hand-stapled document, to allow last-minute additions and corrections: completeness and accuracy being more important than gloss with such a document. And since you’re going to be giving it away free, why waste money?
The programme, catalogue, or souvenir guide should be another animal altogether. The fest has always struggled with this concept. Here are some older versions —
This early-ish manifestation (the fest is the longest continually-running film festival in the world) isn’t exactly glamorous, but hey, the sixties hadn’t started swinging yet. But it’s a clear, reasonably appealing guide, sold cheaply to patrons and packed with info to allow them to choose from the somewhat slender list of films. Interestingly, one of the movies on offer is THEY’VE STOLEN A BOMB, which I reviewed here.
A little later, and the magazine has shrunk to a chunky pamphlet, with a rather basic chevron motif as cover — an unappealing cover which the festival board stuck with for the next ten years. However, these were glorious years for programming, with a full engagement with the exciting cinematic events of the late sixties and early seventies. The booklets are just stuffed with interest, offering decent critical writing amidst the blurbage. The festival was also publishing books to accompany its retrospectives, with solid offerings on Corman and Tashlin and a rather notorious feminist reading of Walsh (not, it turns out, the most productive lens through which to view his work, or at least not the way it’s done here). We get a speedy retrospective on Michael Reeves following his tragic early death, and an admirable mix of high and low culture treated with equal respect. The festival has inherited from these days a tradition of screening midnight movies and cult shockers, but under Lynda Myles’ direction the fest addressed all this varied work with equal seriousness.
Lynda went on to become a successful film producer and is honoured with a plaque outside Edinburgh Filmhouse.
Image: Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s THE LAST OF ENGLAND. Tilda is now a festival patron and collaborated with Mark Cousins and Lynda Myles in contributing ideas for this years festival — ideas which were mainly ignored.
But if you want a model for how a film festival should cope after a budget cut, you ought to look at Jim Hickey’s tenure as director. Jim inherited a festival which had lost a huge amount of its funding and had to shorten its run from two weeks (admittedly an insanely protracted schedule) to ten days. He responded by programming the restored cut of Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON with live orchestral accompaniment, the most expensive single event in the festival’s history thus far. (And unlike Coppola, they showed the whole thing. Coppola took it upon himself to prune the movie down, before introducing it in New York as the definitive restored and complete version, while Kevin Brownlow, who had actually restored it, fumed impotently in the audience.)
NAPOLEON came with its own souvenir programme, both a valuable piece of publicity and a source of revenue.
And here are some of the programmes from Jim’s years running the fest —
Using glossy stills from actual movies seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? David Byrne’s TRUE STORIES may not be a great film (it’s quite good fun though) but it makes for a superb cover image. This is a festival that’s really opening its arms to the public, as Glasgow Film Festival does now. This is the era when I discovered the fest — I saw BLADE RUNNER, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Good entry-level stuff for an aspiring cinephile. Packed screenings. We only occasionally got film-makers in attendance, since funding was always a struggle and the festival’s profile wasn’t high enough to make it a popular destination for publicity junkets. But there were challenging retrospectives (Syberberg!) amid the high-profile screenings of E.T. et al.
The ensuing years brought directors David Robinson, Penny Thompson, Mark Cousins, Lizzie Franke, Shane Danielsen and Hannah McGill. All had their strengths and weaknesses, but a certain consistency in their approach to the souvenir programme can be detected — the book kept getting bigger, with more and more of interest to read, but the cover image tended towards matte abstraction rather than glossy illustration. During Mark’s years, the doorstop volume seemed to be written by whoever was around, with predictably mixed results. Shane’s programme was written entirely by Shane, from cover to cover. He did it very well (he also seemed able to teleport himself about the city in his tuxedo to introduce every single screening) but a little variety might have been nice.
Mark built upon an innovation of Penny Thompson’s, bringing in top technicians and artists to talk about their craft — I’ve enjoyed talks by Ken Adam, Stanley Myers, Anne V. Coates, Carter Burwell. This was great stuff, and corrected a problem of previous years, when filmmakers would often be in town to talk to the press but would be hidden away from the public. Alas, this fine tradition has been totally abolished this year, along with the Michael Powell Award for best British film, which was a useful lure to attract movies to screen here. And there’s been no central retrospective. A series of events and guest programmers has resulted in a scattershot approach, with quite a few comparatively undistinguished older films screening just because they fit some kind of theme, so we get MEMENTO and BRAINSTORM illustrating the subject of neuroscience…
I’ve seen some good films this year and had fun — the screening of my own CRY FOR BOBO was one of the nicest I’ve ever been at (almost Milan-like levels of enthusiasm) and the New Cinephilia event was delightful — so many film obsessives around me made me feel almost normal, and certainly underqualified to be speaking publicly on the subject, but it’s no surprise that audience’s have been down. The festival has not reached out to audiences, and has not offered its wares to them in an enticing way. A film festival needs to be about films — and audiences.
On my way home from the last day, I overheard a couple on the bus commenting on the modest festival display outside Filmhouse. “I’ve never been to a film festival screening,” said the chap. “I don’t know how a film festival screening would differ from a normal one.” It’s the role of next year’s director to answer that question.