Archive for The Wire

Breaking (White) Bread With the Devil

Posted in Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , on October 1, 2013 by dcairns
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t watched up to the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, read no more. Even if you don’t think you’re ever going to watch it, probably you should stop here just in case. What follows is a Facebook discussion between Daniel Riccuito of The Chiseler about the racial politics of the show. The discussion took place before either of us had caught up with the final episode — so we may get into that in the comments section, which will be even MORE spoiler-heavy.
Now read on — or don’t!
DR: Walter White poisons a child. Fortunately for White America, said child is a nerdy, round Latino. After all, what would this oh-so-ethical viewing public think if Walt ever dosed some blond and blue-eyed little girl? Also lucky for us, his first murder victim is, yet again, brown (and angry… gotta ease viewers into the violence — kill off them “natural” crooks first, yeah). Oh, and I for one am glad that when Walt nukes an old age home, we don’t see any white bodies. Weeds, Sons of Anarchy, Orange is the New Black, Dexter, Breaking Bad –5 shows, one white supremacist premise. Nifty!
DC: WW has killed quite a few white people too…
DR: Sure. Still, the fundamental tension of the show is racist. It’s hardly a coincidence that so many tv series share the same tension — white, law-abiding protagonist vs a world of crime, teeming with the “swarthies.” DC: WW isn’t law-abiding! The show is, like Macbeth, about the slow decay of the moral sense, so yes it does “ease the viewer in” — the first killing is straight self-defense, the second is to protect his family, but the victim is defenseless at the time. I never saw race as part of that, it would certainly have been cynical as hell of the makers to use that, but I don’t believe they did. Gale Beidecker comes before the kid…
DR: I don’t think anyone would care about WW’s “slow decay” if it weren’t presented in racist terms. His most appalling crimes — the ones that violate white, middle-class taboos — are couched in racism. Poisoning a kid is intolerable… Unless! Mass murdering helpless elderly folks is completely beyond the pale… Unless! All we see is a Latino criminal with half his face blown off (a touch of comedy), but where is the endless parade of corpses? Nowhere. Invisible.
DC: Because the explosion was localized to that room. The show would have told us if there was a bunch of collateral damage — they didn’t shy away from the air crash.
DR: No, the carnage beyond that room is mentioned more than once. We just don’t see it. And the air crash is also pretty darn abstract.I like the show very much, btw.
DC: Consider — there’s no structural damage to the building — Fring walks out the doorway, which is intact. Walls were not blown down. So I don’t see how anybody else would have been harmed.
DR: You have a point, David.
DR: I find it hard not to see the drug culture Walt enters as a racially charged measuring stick. Always and everywhere, Walt’s “slow decay” brings him closer to a callousness that we’re supposed to take for granted when it occurs in that “other” world.
DC: It all depends, also, on how they choose to end it — does he get a shot at “redemption”? — which would be rather offensive at this stage — or does he complete his journey into evil?
DR: It’s gorgeously written.In the standard 50s sitcom, a husband and wife would swap jobs for the comedic value of it all. “Oh look, that man is acting like a lady!” The comedy of Breaking Bad has a similar dynamic. “Oh, look at that white man (and his sidekick, PINK MAN) acting all…” fill in the blank.
Hard to ignore the fact that the two main characters bear the names WHITE and PINK MAN!
Also, WW bests his fellow criminals with intelligence. That’s another primary tension. The cerebral white character knocking off the thugs, one by one. Even the brighter gangsters are no match for the supremely brilliant Walter White. It’s the “brainiac” vs the (mostly) dumbass crooks. I don’t think it’s coincidental that in the final season the show concentrates all but exclusively on white people, even white supremacists. It’s a way of buying back the racism of the entire series. Suddenly, the white suburban monsters come out to play! It’s a sly move.
Put it this way: if Walter White were a black man, would the show fly?
DC: It might have trouble if he were black because then they’d worry about racism from another angle — “The apparently civilized middle-class black man proves to be a gangster at heart.”
DR: True enough, but I’m thinking specifically about the “redemption” theme you mentioned. In AMERICAN HISTORY X, the white protagonist brutally murders a young black man by methodically and sadistically crushing his skull. That moment plays on white revenge scenarios. The camera loiters on the thrill of it all. I seriously doubt a white audience would stick around for the ensuing redemption if some black protagonist had just murdered an adolescent white boy in cold blood. When WW strangles a Latino captive tied up in a basement like an animal, self-defense or not, there’s a pointed white supremacy undercurrent to the scene. And so, to my ear. there’s a thumpingly obvious racist aspect to WW’s “complex” downfall. Non-whites are being used as disposable stepping-stones. I don’t think redemption is necessary here — the fact that we keep watching, that we remain interested in WW’s ethical dilemma… That’s everything.
DC: I’d go further and say that to pretend Walt is in any way redeemable would negate the series, and I bet that’s not going to happen. It’s highly questionable if, at the end of the last episode, he’s even thinking of doing good. He’s thinking of mass murder, it’s just a question of who. The audience is very keen to see the neo-Nazis pay, and I’m very keen to see what happens with that storyline — it needs to not deliver the required uplift.I don’t see the killing of Crazy 8 as white supremacist because it’s not triumphal — it’s another step on the path to damnation.
DR: Redemption is probably not in the cards — and I don’t see the ending as crucial with re: to white supremacy themes. Such themes are NEVER dominant but ALWAYS available to the Breaking Bad audience. The subtlety of the racist agenda is part of what I find so hard to bear. Grind-house bigotry is more honest. It’s funny how tasteful and self-effacing racism can be, while masquerading as enlightened or “progressive” cinema. AMERICAN HISTORY X plays that same game. The triumphalism is there for those who want it (virtually everyone in the white American audience), but it can be plausibly excused and downplayed in a million (conscious) ways. That’s exactly what Walt’s crimes against white victims amount to — plausible deniability. A non-triumphal ending only reinforces the “see, we’re not being racist” claim. Again, BB is part of an undeniably HUGE context — shows that exploit the tragi-comedy of hapless white people besting black and Latino criminals at their “own game” as the central plot. WW essentially clobbers the country of Mexico by his lonesome. The unconscious appeal of that is HUGE for a white America in free-fall, trying to fend off Mexican immigration and regain a sense of hegemony. Walter’s (incredibly) white, dull nerdiness is crucial to the power trip. Whereas the comeuppance ending is obligatory and meaningless. The fantasy is geared to unconscious desires, not a conscious moral sense. We’ve reversed the Depression-era formula of the 1930s (happy endings) — now we get “complexity” to feed our Even Greater Depression (which has only just commenced!).
DC: I was never interested seeing AMERICAN HISTORY X because I have so little sympathy for the KIND of character and don’t really see them as redeemable. The road to hell structure of BB is fascinating because it’s all so awful — I’m not sure I can even explain why the show is pleasurable to watch. On certain levels it’s torture. But obviously there’s gratification to be had from seeing the upstanding citizen suddenly cut loose from society’s rules, and his first victory in the pilot is over a loudmouthed yuppie whose car he torches and over some (white) bullies who pick on his son. So we get the seduction of being a bad-ass. But mostly it’s a character making horrible choices, having a horrible time, and making things horrible for those around him, friends AND enemies…
DR: Yeah, agreed. Totally. I just happen to doubt that the show is oblivious to these “darker” forms of viewer satisfaction. I keep thumping the same key, sorry — “White” and “Pinkman/ Pink Man”! It’s a great joke. With nasty nuances…
DC: And a multiform joke, since it brings in Mr White and Mr Pink from RESERVOIR DOGS and Walt Whitman too.
DR: The deaths of the Latino characters are consistently graphic.Hank’s death? Barely visible.Even the white chemist killed by Mr. Pink is conveyed via Jesse’s point of view.
DC: Because Walt’s not there. It’s more unsympathetic for him to make Jesse do it than it would be if he did it himself.As for visibility, it’s not the same thing as significance.
DR: Again, I take your points, but it says something about viewer tolerance. The show assumes that seeing a white person’s face ripped apart is harder to take.
DC: Jesse gets beaten to shit every series!
DR: Not NEARLY the same as Fring!
Not even in the same moral universe!
DC: Well, Fring is the villain. The show has a grand guignol element for sure. Hank’s death isn’t about the fact of his destruction, it’s about Walt losing any illusion of control he had over the events he’s set in motion, and about the lie of protecting his family being destroyed. So splatter seems less appropriate — the scene is more EMOTIONAL than Fring’s. Fring’s needed that element of theater to reach the right level.
DR: But it ALWAYS seems to play out that way. We INVARIABLY need to see Latinos die gruesomely and slowly.Think of Fring’s young protege.It’s a pattern.
DC: Which protegé?
DR: BOTH protegés! DC: Seems to me more of them are fast, just very messy. There is an attempt to make the deaths shocking and unpleasant, but this is of course within the context of an entertainment.
DR: My point exactly. We’re entertained by the gruesome deaths so long as the victims are of the “appropriate” variety.
DC: We’re also entertained by the tragic, less bloody deaths of the sympathetic characters, in a different way. And Gus kills one of his own  protegés with a boxcutter, so where does that take us?
DR: To the same conclusion — Latino blood is cheap.
DC: Then the show could be racist by that argument even if there were no white characters. It doesn’t seem like there’s any way Gilligan can win here.
DR: Think about your unambiguous declaration — Fring is a villain. I agree. The ONLY thing that distinguishes Walt from Fring is race; and yet Walt’s a far more ambiguous character, a “villain”… quotation marks firmly in place. Walt’s “moral ambiguity” is strictly racial.
DC: The thing(s) that distinguishes Walt (1) He’s the chosen protagonist (2) He journeys from being sympathetic to not being sympathetic, but of course takes some of the audience’s identification along for the ride. Fring kills more readily than Walter, but it’s true that by the end of series 4 there’s little to separate them, which is the point. But though morally similar they have different roles in the series, those of protagonist and antagonist. Is that in itself racist?Despite having less screen time than Walt, Fring DOES get moments of sympathy, nurturing Jesse and he is supplied with motivation, the death of his brother which transformed him the way Walt is transformed.
DR: Exactly! Don’t forget that we see Fring’s back-story. And the more we learn about him, the more he becomes Walt’s opposite number — and yet Walt, the protagonist, has a nimbus that Fring, no matter how sympathetic he becomes, will never have. Yes, I do see Walt’s status as the protagonist as stemming from both race and racism. Same goes for Gus, who is fated to be another disposable villain — that, too, plays on the big R.Walt’s crimes remain pretty white.Fring slices throats.Those Latinos!!!
DC: Well then, it’s the inevitable racism of American TV shows preferring white central characters where possible. But I do think that if Walt had been black, the show would have seemed MORE racist, because it deals with the nastiness lurking behind the civilized veneer. Not an inspiring message to apply to a black schoolteacher.
DR: It’s a trap. Think of The Wire. Black faces. White soul. The Corner, its predecessor, is far better.
DC: Still to see The Wire. I don’t really watch much TV.
DR: This is where I go into my schtick about the narrative form itself, which, more often than not, reinforces whatever problems plague the culture that produces it. Narrative… is evil. Walter’s moral dilemma, the one we care so much about, MUST be dramatized with plenty of carnage. The people who die are necessarily less-than types — Gus the Villain absolutely must die; and we know this from the moment he’s introduced. To me, it’s impossible to review the body count, and the character of each death (its relative grisliness and so on) without seeing race and racism, which are necessary to the show’s essential message. Otherwise we couldn’t stand the pain. Because Walt is the protagonist, he needs to go on (and on!) mowing down his competitors. I won’t advise you to watch — urgh — more television… but Weeds has exactly the same plot, and it’s ALL about race (only more brazenly and trashily so).

The Edinburgh Dialogues #5: Shane Danielsen

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2011 by dcairns

A few of my more sharp-eyed readers may notice that this is not, in fact, Shane Danielsen. Claudia Cardinale in Valerio Zurlini’s GIRL WITH A SUITCASE. Shane suggested, wrongly I feel, that this would make a more attractive start to the article than a portrait of him.



Shane Danielsen was Artistic Director of Edinburgh International Film Festival from 2002-6, having first attended in 2000 as curator of the Max Ophuls retrospective. During his time, Edinburgh saw some memorable events and screenings, and retrospectives particularly to my taste: Mitchell Leisen and Henri-Georges Clouzot, as well as Valerio Zurlini whom I hadn’t even heard of. He conducted memorable onstage interviews with Liv Ullman, Steven Soderbergh, Charlize Theron and George Romero. And the new films at Edinburgh were a choice bunch.

Shane arrived with a reputation for passion and even violence, but the only incident I heard of in that line was the delivery of a strongly-phrased three-word sentence  to former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo, which struck me as entirely appropriate in the circumstances.

The following conversation was conducted by email, and Shane is his usual out-spoken self. I don’t always agree with Shane but I always find him entertaining, even as I wince on behalf of those who become his targets (including, below, film bloggers and those who read them).

John Huston said this, of Edinburgh — in 1972.

DC: I’m starting off by asking people about their favourite memories of the Festival.

SD: Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not that interested in talking about my time there – mostly, because I don’t think it’s especially helpful to where we are now. Nostalgia for some perceived golden age – be it Jim Hickey’s time, or Murray Grigor’s, or Lizzie’s – is honestly the last thing Edinburgh needs at present, given the state the festival is in and the severity of the choices confronting it.

But there’s also another reason, which is why I said I was hesitant, initially, to do this interview. And that’s that Edinburgh is – as my friend Derek Elley often noted – a festival haunted to an unusual degree by the ghosts of directors past. All rattling their chains and moaning to anyone who’ll listen that, were they still in charge, they would have done it all sooooo differently . . . It’s tedious, and redundant – and also kind of dishonest, because it fails to acknowledge that time has passed since then, the film industry has changed (quite profoundly, in fact), and as a result, so has the place that festivals like EIFF occupy within it.

So when I left Edinburgh, I vowed that I wouldn’t speak of my time there publicly again. I wouldn’t comment on subsequent festivals; I wouldn’t turn up and hang around like some grandee – which always struck me, frankly, as the height of bad taste. Hannah deserved rather better, I thought, than yet another Banquo at her feast. Her first year, I didn’t even look at the programme. I was in Berlin, reading and writing and, I suppose, just enjoying being in a city that excited me again.

Hannah McGill.

DC: I’ll just say, in defense of everyone who’s talked to me so far, they were all very anxious NOT to be seen as sniping from the sidelines or harking back to a bygone age.

SD: They might not choose to here, in this forum and at this time, but that’s not to say it isn’t a recurring, and regrettable, tendency. I remember all too well, when I took the (to-my-mind eminently justifiable) decision not to programme Richard Jobson’s “A Woman In Winter,” the carping from certain ex-directors – never to my face, of course – about how I was letting down the side and not supporting Scottish filmmaking . . . Which of course brings into play all kind of issues about nationalism and funding and special pleading, too complicated and tedious to get into here.

I endured this, mostly, with polite forbearance. When, really, what I wanted to say was, Mind your own business. You had your time; you made your choices. Now kindly do me the courtesy of fucking off and letting me make mine. I didn’t agree with all of Hannah’s decisions – how could I? we’re different people, with different tastes – but I did think that a lot of what she did constituted an ingenious solution to certain problems, as well as a necessary response to certain external pressures – which we can, and should, discuss later. But whether I happened to agree or not didn’t actually matter. Because it wasn’t my show anymore, it was hers, and I should – and did – accord her the respect of not throwing in my unasked two cents’ worth.

[DC: I haven’t seen A WOMAN IN WINTER. I have seen Jobson’s previous film, THE PURIFIERS, an unofficial remake of THE WARRIORS. Starring martial artists. Shot in Milton Keynes. So I can imagine the decision not to screen his movie in an International Film Festival being justified, despite it’s being Scottish product: there does have to be a quality threshold. But as I say, I haven’t seen the film in question.]

But I mention this mostly, I suppose, because Edinburgh has always been prey to an especially virulent strain of nostalgia – part of which, admittedly, it brings upon itself, with its endless looking-back: “The oldest continually running film festival in the world,” “John Huston said he gave a damn …” blah blah blah. I remember trying in vain to move the debate on from this – now, I think, the festival has no choice. Because in the radically accelerated environment of the digital world we inhabit – a world in which artistic scarcity is a thing of the past, and not only historical context but the very notion of programming are increasingly imperiled (since works from all times and places are almost instantly accessible, to be consumed on-demand and in ways that exclude traditional cinema or festival environments) – that kind of anecdotal history means less and less.

I’d also argue that 2011 marks such a rupture in the history of the festival, that the chain of continuity has been broken anyway. And so, après le deluge, it’s probably time to speak out.

DC: A big topic of discussion has been the date change from August to June.

I don’t want to go on about dates except to note two things:

Firstly, let’s acknowledge, shall we, that there is no ideal time of the year to hold a film festival. None. There might have been in 1963, or even 1993. But today? No. Not with four thousand bloody festivals out there.

Secondly, and more importantly, how come no one is placing some of the blame for the ‘disaster’ that was the shift to June – if indeed it was such a disaster – where it belongs? Which is not with Hannah, or Ginnie, but with the UK Film Council, and specifically Pete Buckingham. Who basically strong-armed EIFF into accepting a date-change (from August to June) and becoming a particular thing (a “festival of discovery” a la Sundance, leaving the “festival of spangles and riches” for London). Otherwise, no cash from the UKFC, thank you very much.

And then, when it isn’t an unqualified success, he’s screaming at Hannah for “not getting it right” (er, getting what right, Pete? you mean that vague, half-assed plan you were told from the outset wouldn’t work?), while cheerfully disavowing any hint of responsibility to everyone else who asked. Now, of course, he’s walked away from the burnt carcass of the Film Council and slid across to the BFI, sound as a pound. You couldn’t make it up.

I have a reputation for being somewhat . . . outspoken, I know. But can you be surprised, when this kind of shit goes on, and nobody calls anyone out on it? I can only conclude it’s a British thing, where you’d prefer to grumble about things, to chafe under the yoke, rather than actually stand up for yourself. But I’m afraid I’m not like that. I’ve got more pride; my father raised me better than that. And if no one else is going to say it (and clearly they’re not), then I will: the UK Film Council fucked the Edinburgh Film Festival.

DC: The strangest thing about this year’s festival was the decision not to appoint a director, then to use consultants, then to have a director after all, but not an “artistic director.” By the end, I think James was being called artistic director, but he was executing bits of a programme of ideas put together by other hands, plus a few ideas of his own.

So, what does the title artistic director mean to you, and what do you see as the consequences of stepping away from that approach and putting power in the hands of a CEO? Or, to be blunt and very specific, should Gavin Miller be in the position he’s in? Should James Mullighan have been placed in the position/s he was in?

SD: Well, James was definitely placed in a position. No doubt about that.

It’s funny: I made a point of meeting him in February, when he came to Berlin for the Film Festival. It was a brief visit, a quick in-and-out; I had to work to pin him down. A more suspicious soul might have sensed a certain reluctance on his part – though he was friendly enough when we did talk. (And, for the record, I thought he acquitted himself well in your interview.)

By now the awful, faux-naif conceptualism of Mark Cousins’ plan was starting to filter out. The underpants. The anthem. The statues. A ‘pay what you think the film is worth’ day – an idea so stupendously idiotic that I found it hard to believe that it issued from someone who’d actually run the festival before, much less knew anything about how the film industry works.

DC: Why?

SD: Well, imagine emailing or telephoning a sales agent, the people who, in most cases, give you the films you show – say, Wild Bunch, the most haughty and disdainful of the European titans – and, when they ask for a screening fee, or a minimum guarantee, explaining that the actual market value of their product – which they’re licencing to you, more for your benefit than their own – will be determined by the audience. A Scottish audience.

(Of course, this is all pure conjecture, since Wild Bunch wouldn’t take a call from Edinburgh any more, such was the reputation of the festival after the protracted, bungled search for a new AD – an instance of mismanagement that had not gone unnoticed within the international industry. Nor would most of the other major sales companies. The festival was perceived to be dying, or dead. As one sales agent remarked to me, in March, ‘One less we have to worry about.’)

Mr. Cousins, I’m glad to say, was paid precisely what his ideas were worth – which is to say, nothing. Indeed, he made a point of saying so himself, in his Teflon-like slide away from actual work (beyond that airy ‘sending of a few emails’) or accountability. A slide which I’d predicted to Mr Mullighan during our conversation in the early evening of February 16, in the lobby bar of the Hyatt Hotel, Potsdamer Platz.

I suggested to Mullighan then that he’d been hired as a quisling, as a fall-guy for what promised to be a potentially reputation-tarnishing disaster, and that my only advice to him would be to get a good lawyer to go over his contract, as he would almost certainly be out of a job the minute this year’s edition was over. And so, four months later, it proved. That he now claims to have only ever been hired for one year surprises me, when I recall our discussion, but perhaps he was simply being discreet.

Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins.

[DC: Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the actual All That Heaven Allows blueprint: Mark Cousins didn’t feel able to supply a copy for publication. But the press, and PopBitch, did carry the story about the Festival Underpants, and it was apparently presented to the staff at EIFF.]

Should Gavin Miller remain in his position? No. And I don’t feel especially bad about saying so, since I said as much to his face, when I met him – again, by careful contrivance – at Cannes. (My wife was amused to note that, when I walked up and introduced myself, his proffered hand began to tremble slightly; I felt for a moment like Lord Voldemort.) We had what might be called a full and frank exchange of views, in the course of which I suggested, politely, that he resign. Not altogether surprisingly, he disagreed.

The CEO doesn’t have to be a cinephile (though the AD definitely does, and it’s to Mullighan’s discredit, I think, that he’s not). In fact, it’s better that they’re not a film nerd; they’re about realising, in a practical sense, the vision of the AD, and reining in their wilder excesses. The two jobs are very different, and require very different and even opposite skill-sets. But it should, at the very least, be someone who knows about the film industry: how it operates, where it’s at, and how Edinburgh might work within it. Same goes for the Board: to have a Board comprised of people who know next to nothing about either the festival or the industry – as was the case in 2010-11 – is a recipe for disaster. But the failure here is an institutional one, of extraordinary proportions, and it goes from the Board right down through management to the staff. Who are good, hard-working people, trying to do the best job they can despite the idiocy of those above them. (In this respect, at least, it probably hasn’t changed all too much from my time there.)

And while we’re apportioning blame, the last thing I’ll say about Cousins’ ‘Ziggy Stardust moment’ for EIFF is this: Mark always enjoys telling us how much he loves film. That his is a purer, better, nobler love than any of ours’. It’s a very canny strategy, this fey innocence, since it has the effect of making even the mildest criticism appear to be motivated by black-hearted cynicism. (Obviously you don’t love cinema enough! You’re disconnected from your sense of wonder/child within/spirit-totem!)

But for someone who’s constantly banging on about the magic of movies, he certainly doesn’t seem to care much about screening them with any integrity. He talked this year about wanting to get away from using ‘traditional venues’ (cinemas are so square, daddy-o!) – but screening a DVD on a sheet in an attic is not, I think, the most creditable way to watch a movie. It devalues the work, and it disfavours the audience. One of his mooted ideas – that a film would begin at one venue and then stop, halfway through, and you’d have to walk to another venue to see the rest of it (ah, but along the way, you’d talk about Cinema!) – says all that needs be said, I think, about his fondness for gimmicks, and his blithe disregard for the level of care a filmmaker should reasonably expect from a festival that has invited his work.

I mention this because he’s managed, with characteristic adroitness, to escape most of the blame that should, I think, be laid as much at his feet as at Gavin Miller’s. Had he not been so shifty when trying to exculpate himself from the mess he’d helped create – first spitting his dummy in the dirt when the staff rejected his plans as bullshit, then ducking out as soon as it looked like the festival would be a flop, I wouldn’t lay into him like this. But he did, and I am. I CALL SHENANIGANS!

As for the AD, I was asked recently what that job requires. This is what I wrote: ‘The obvious things required are also the obvious things that were noticeably lacking here. Someone with a broad and detailed knowledge of international cinema, both historically and in the present, and strong curatorial and presentation skills. Someone who understands the business – specifically, the complex network of inter-relationships between UK and international producers, sales agents, distributors and festivals, and where EIFF can and should exist in relation to each of these. Someone with ideas that are credible, and not bullshit. Someone who can inspire both a severely demoralised staff and a signally disinterested pool of funders, both public and corporate, to work toward the rehabilitation of what has become, in less than twelve months, a badly devalued brand.’

The CEO of the CMI: Gavin Miller.

DC: The abortive search for an artistic director last year was a strange sight, certainly as viewed from the outside, and there was widespread doubt about whether the Festival was even going to go ahead. How could it have been so hard to find someone suitable? Do you know anything about how all that went down?

SD: I had a number of people I know – and also one or two I didn’t – contact me to ask whether I thought they should apply for the job. I looked at the advertisement and told them I thought it would be a bad idea. For one thing, there was no actual mention of programming, and everyone who spoke to me was more or less the same kind of person: an enthusiast, rather than a careerist, someone in love with the idea of just selecting beautiful movies and splendid retrospectives. Which is a lot of what the AD job is, but by no means all of it, alas.

But then, what had I expected? People I know kept forwarding me newspaper stories about Gavin Miller (for most of the past twelve months, all I had to do to keep appraised of doings at Edinburgh was look at my In Box), and I noticed, in the course of this reading, that he barely used the word ‘film’, much less ‘cinema’ in his interviews. But boy oh boy, was he down with generating multiple revenue opportunities via a diverse array of digital content and cross-platform branding!

This is the new breed: the marketers have stormed the citadel. But this, too, was to be expected, since festivals are no longer allowed to be the things they once were: small, local events of curatorial integrity, put on by passionate enthusiasts. And this clash of expectations is something I’m going to return to in a moment.

Plus, there was the financial situation, with the Film Council money (and the Film Council itself) winding down, the shift to a BFI that’s long disadvantaged EIFF in favour of London, a new Tory government determined to slash and burn, and the vastly diminished sponsorship opportunities of a post-recession economy. I’m not saying for one moment that a new approach to delivering the festival wasn’t needed; without question, it was. But there were ways to do that – and just as importantly, to sell it – without having to go the Dreamy Outsiders, ‘pay with a current bun and sit on a cloud’ route. Ways that might have retained some fundamental goodwill and belief in the event from outside stakeholders, instead of disbelief and derision.

Anyway, I heard about most of who applied, and who they spoke to. So thoroughly fucked-up was the process that one candidate – the head programmer for a reasonably high-profile US festival – didn’t even score an interview. Now, I’m not much of a fan of the guy personally, nor am I terribly convinced by his sterling good taste. But you’d think he’d be someone you’d at least want to talk to. . .

DC: Obviously a lot of very vocal people in Scotland, including myself, have a kind of proprietary feeling about the EIFF which might make things hard for anybody wanting to impose changes. But nobody wants it to be a purely local event, and it’d probably die if that’s what it became, so those voices and audiences aren’t all that counts. The big question, I suppose, has to be “Who and what is the EIFF for?” or even “Who/what is any 21st century film festival for?” Who does it have to satisfy and what does it have to do to achieve that? 

SD: A friend there sent me a link, a few weeks ago, to aBBC radio report on the festival, and while I agreed with most of the complaints the (Scottish) journalist raised about this year’s event, her bleating about how ‘Edinburgh should be more like Cannes’ just betrayed, to me, a stunning, provincial ignorance about what this festival is, what Cannes is, and where each sits in the broader scheme of things.

This endless carping: Why isn’t Edinburgh more like Cannes? Well, there’s a very easy answer to this question: Cannes has an annual budget of over 20m Euros. EIFF, by comparison, runs on the spare change found at the back of the sofa. Considerably more money might mean a slightly more Cannes-like experience, provided that one’s index for this happens to be a ‘red-carpet’ (i.e., stars and premieres) style event. Slightly, but not completely. You’ll never get the same level of world premieres as Cannes. You’ll occasionally get A-list stars – but not all the time.

But Cannes is also on the Côte d’Azur– a highly desirable destination. It has, in addition to its festival, the largest film market in the world. It happens at precisely the right time of year to begin positioning films for sale and distribution and awards. So everyone wants to premiere there, and everything else is considered second- (or third-, or fourth-) best.

It’s also, for better or worse, the defining brand – the words ‘film festival’ are synonymous with Cannes; it’s the only one that everybody knows – and its prize is the only one that means a damn out in the wider world. (Who, apart from a few trainspotters, remembers what won the last two years’ Golden Bears? Or Venice Lions?) Even well-funded contenders like Venice and Berlin, can’t match the value it brings to a film . . . so to try to emulate it in a small city in Scotland, on a budget of £13.75, strikes me as kind of idiotic.

I actually had a test, whenever a journalist complained of EIFF not being enough like Cannes. I’d ask them if they’d ever been to Cannes themselves. And I wasn’t exactly surprised to find that, almost without exception, the answer was no. Supposedly informed professionals, their image of Cannes was essentially no different to any reader of Hello: a non-stop parade of red carpet events, with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney sashaying, while a million flashbulbs pop. Never mind that this spectacle occupies perhaps two or possibly three nights out of the festival’s eleven. The rest of the time, that same red carpet is occupied by precisely the kind of filmmakers in which EIFF specialises: Alexsandr Sukurov, Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien . . .

But the press are especially guilty, in this respect, I think. You have people like Andrew Pulver, in the Guardian, complaining last year that Edinburgh had ‘sold out’, somehow, by having films like ‘Toy Story 3’ – which is apparently not what a supposed ‘festival of discovery’ is all about – and then complaining this year that ‘the big films are missing.’ Well, which is it?

You have arts journalists at the Scottish papers mostly sitting on their hands for the first six months of this year, either unable or unwilling to do the kind of basic investigative journalism that might detail what’s happening within what’s become a noticeably strife-torn organisation – a story that, it seems to me, might be of some passing interest to their readers. Other than to trot out their usual piece about how it’s ‘not the same as it was,’ and why, oh why can’t it be better? Meaning, presumably, ‘more like Cannes’.

But by parroting these two things – glassy-eyed nostalgia and a vague, itchy sense that they should say something – they never actually focus on the bigger issues (in particular, the experience the festival offers people who actually buy tickets and attend it – only Siobhan Synnot’s piece in the Scotsman did that this year), and never take a broader perspective, and site the festival in the international world of other film festivals or the international film industry, and consider what external pressures may be upon it, and how well – or not – it’s reacting to those. The level of discourse is so low, it’s staggering. One guy was happy to run something – provided I wrote it myself and basically did his job for him. (And presumably, insulate him from actual blame as well as undue exertion.) I said, er, no.

This is what I mean about the clash of expectations. Everyone has a different and competing idea of what EIFF should be, and the one thing those visions share is that none of them are congruent with social or economic reality. And the people out there now, in the wake of this year’s disaster, saying, oh, it should go back to showing art movies, and being a bastion of academic excellence, a la the 1960s . . . Well, guess what? It’s no longer the 1960s. The audience has changed (and diminished) and so has the culture. And except for a couple of hundred logorrheic nerds on the internet, blogging endlessly to each other, that kind of film culture is largely extinct. And most importantly of all, no one will fund that kind of festival any more. I’m sorry about that, but it’s true.

Steven Soderbergh took time out from OCEAN’S 13 to talk to Shane (right).

DC: When you ran the event, it was a cinephile feast that also had areas of much wider appeal. Are you saying that such a festival is no longer possible? Have we moved that far on/back, that quickly?

SD: Well, that’s nice of you to say. If that’s true – and I’m sure some would disagree – it’s only because, while I hesitate to use the word cinephile, I do love movies. And all types of movies, old and new, from the very commercial to the very, very slow, hermetic and austere. (For the record, test things I’ve seen so far this year: Ruiz’s “Mysteries of Lisbon”, Köhler’s “Sleeping Sickness”, Naranjo’s “Miss Bala”, and Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”) I think that Catholicism of taste is important for an Artistic Director, lest the festival become too much one thing.

(Actually, this does remind me of one funny story from my time there, at a dinner with an actress, who had clearly screwed her co-star during the shoot, and was flirting outrageously with him across the table – much to the irritation of his wife, who was sitting beside him. Eventually the starlet turned a bored eye in my direction, and asked what was good at the festival, anyway? What she should see? I named one or two films screening the following day, but then said, you know, it depends on what kind of movies you like. I mean, I’m sure you’ve got pretty Catholic tastes . . . ‘Oh, no,’ she replied firmly. ‘I don’t like anything about religion.’ A beat of embarrassed silence ensued, during which the actor’s wife was staring right at me, with one eyebrow raised, as if to say, ‘A slut AND an idiot. Nice.’)

The one thing it should be, though, is a reflection of the artistic director’s tastes. Because to me, that’s the job; that’s why I was paid what I used to laughingly refer to as the big bucks. And part of it is simply covering your own ass: no one, in a dismal year, would say, gee, Shane Danielsen’s programmers really let him down … Ultimately, the buck does, and should, stop with you. To be the director of something – be it a festival or a film – means putting your own stamp upon it: this is after all one of the tenets of auteurism. Unless, of course, that film or festival is part of an industrialized process, the work of many hands. Which, unfortunately, may be where Edinburgh is at right now.

This is not uncommon. You know at Toronto the programmers often don’t even write their own catalogue copy? A lot of them have interns or other staffers do it for them, and then put their by-lines to it. And they’re not alone: apparently quite a few festivals do this, now. Because they’re too large, too anonymous, and being run by bureaucrats, or by committee. And also because Film Festival Director or Film Festival Programmer was, for some years, seen as a thing to do, a way to enjoy a certain kind of lifestyle and build a career. Now, of course, the result of all this enthusiasm has become apparent: a sub-prime-mortgage-like bubble of too many festivals fighting over too little product, followed by an inevitable meltdown, timed to the 2008-9 recession. Which brings us to where we are now: a period of correction in the market, where there will undoubtedly be casualties. And EIFF may yet be among them.

Having no EIFF catalogue this year was sad, yes. Obviously that publication was something that was quite close to my heart. But better not to do something at all, I think, then to do it badly.

DC: I agree entirely that the Scottish press has two default stories, “too commercial” and “lacking glamour” and it trots them out alternately more or less at random. But isn’t there some way the Festival could GIVE them another, better story, something worth writing about? Journalists, being lazy, might welcome a story that comes pre-packaged.

SD: Oh, indeed. (Sorry, have been watching ‘The Wire’ again, and am very taken with Omar’s speech patterns.) But my question is this: why do we have to do their work for them? Why can’t they bring some kind of informed, analytical perspective to the very thing they’re supposed to cover? I mean, if your beat is the Scottish arts scene, it’s not too hard, is it, to keep abreast of developments? To know the players and follow the narrative? It’s not like you’re covering Wall Street, or trying to find out if Iran are developing a nuclear weapons programme.


I didn’t realise, until a friend pointed it out to me about an hour ago, that the Herald subsequently ran your Mullighan piece. (Did he know that was going to happen? And did he consent to it being used, there? Because I certainly wouldn’t.) This, to me, is the Scottish press in a nutshell: aggregators of other people’s content. You did the hard work, and they scooped it up. Presumably, in the spare minutes between updating their Twitter feeds.

[DC: The journalist in question tweeted to let me know he was writing the piece and was nice enough to ask how I wanted to be described. But he didn’t actually ask permission, I guess because once something is labeled “news” it belongs to everybody. James Mullighan expressed surprise that the Herald didn’t call him directly: it’s not like he’s been in hiding.]

James Mullighan.

DC: Some might accuse you of score-settling here. Can you offer a positive suggestion for carving out a future for smaller film festivals generally?

SD: Well, that’s the unfortunate consequence of my compulsion to speak truth to power – ironically, the very quality which defines a good journalist. But Hannah, I know, is just as sad and furious as I am. She’s just a more tactful and politic person. As she said to me just this morning, she has to live in Edinburgh. I don’t.

But score-settling … I don’t know about that. I haven’t said anything here that I haven’t said already to the people themselves. I haven’t spoken to Mark in a few years, perhaps because he’s always clinging on so tightly to his Famous Friend. It’s hard to get his attention. But given the spirit of the last discussion we did have, at Edinburgh’s Closing Night Party in 2005, I don’t think he’s under any illusions as to my feelings about him. Had he been in Cannes this year, I certainly would have gone up and given him some feedback – if only in terms of how to write a press release that doesn’t make your balls ache. Though my wife said she was relieved he wasn’t, as she didn’t much fancy bailing me out of a French jail.

But I did make a point of speaking to James Mullighan, just as I made a point of meeting Gavin Miller. And I did so because I wanted to get my own sense of each of them, rather than go on gossip and hearsay. And I expressed my concerns to each of them, as an ‘interested stakeholder’, honestly and forthrightly – but above all politely; voices were never raised above a polite murmur.

I also chose to hold my tongue about Edinburgh for a number of years, as I said at the beginning of this talk, feeling it wasn’t my place to comment. But given this year’s debacle, I thought it might be time to use this project of yours for what could be most pertinent: an interrogation of where EIFF is at, and how it came to get there, rather than yet another chance to bask in the rosy glow of nostalgia, and remember when so-and-so came, and so-and-so said, and so on, and so on . . .

I’m not in Scotland; I’m out in the world. And I cannot overstate to you the degree of dismay and disappointment in the international film community right now. For agents, Edinburgh is something to be avoided, lest it tarnish their clients’ reputation (and believe me when I say that my sources, in this regard, are excellent ones). For many sales agents, as I said, it’s simply ceased to matter; they’ve struck it off their lists of significant festivals to deal with. The river flows fast, in the world of film festivals: you stop swimming for a moment, and you drown.

For distributors, it’s a non-event, without either the money, the press profile or the reputation to make the necessary difference to their films. It’s broken – and worse still, it’s broke. And what we’re seeing now is the result, not only of a catastrophic series of appointments since Hannah’s departure, but of a long-term narrative of financial mismanagement and administrative neglect. In which I am as every bit guilty as anyone else. I should have done more, or been smarter, or stronger. I definitely should have been a better manager. But I also could see the ossification of the organisation from within, and its dysfunction – and also, how the tide was turning in the broader world. I’m very glad I got out when I did, at the last possible moment that doing it could have been remotely considered fun.

Claudia Cardinale resolutely failing to look like Shane Danielsen.

DC: Whatever the cause of the Festival’s problems, the solution has to involve enlisting and empowering an Artistic Director who can improve the event’s standing by their very reputation, and then funding the thing to a reasonable level so it can do what its more informed critics demand: not compete with Cannes, but stand on its own as a worthy event presenting exciting modern cinema and retrospectives and events and stimulating thought, for the pleasure of Edinburgh residents and visitors alike. That’s the minimum. If Gavin Miller and his Centre for the Moving Image can’t do that, what are they paid so handsomely for? 
Here is the link to the CMI’s website. Does this suggest a vibrant organisation working to promote cinema?  A “powerhouse of ideas and activity”? I don’t see the evidence of it here. I think this organisation needs to change from secrecy to opennessm admit its mistakes and move on. The process of choosing the next Artistic Director is underway. I hope they make a good choice.

The Face Stealer

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2008 by dcairns

Yes! *I* am the man whose face appears as she meditates! A page from my friend Simon Fraser’s comic strip Lux and Alby Sign On and Save the Universe, written by Martin Millar. Simon borrowed my face, John Woo style, to decorate his strip. Of course, back then I was thin and had long hair and round glasses. My replacement face is fatter, has shorter hair and glasses that are more… ovular.

“Don’t put that! Ovular. That’s not even a word.”

Simon, my best friend from art school, was in town on Thursday (he lives in New York these days) and we met up at the Gladstone Gallery, part of a meticulously preserved seventeenth-century house on the High Street, where his old studio-mate Andy MacIntosh has a show on (imaginary landscapes made from distressed metal) which I recommend to Edinburghers.

It is, of course, the time of the Edinburgh Festival. The Film Fest having moved to June, we were looking forward to being able to devote a little time to the other arts, but so far it’s hardly happening. But yesterday we at least took in Mr MacIntosh’s show, and the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at the nearby Fruitmarket Gallery, where Fiona and I once planned to shoot part of this film:

Illustration by Simon.

Subjects under discussion were TV’s Lost, which Fiona and I just finished watching, The Wire, which everybody is watching except us (we will, we will!), MAMMA MIA!, HELLBOY II, and whether Sarah Jessica Parker looks like a foot. Also, plastic surgery: rumour suggests that Joe Pesci had to have electrolysis behind the ears, having had his face tightened so much that bits of ex-chin were sprouting stubble behind his lobes.