It has been a privilege over the years to share thoughts with you in this space on the world cinema scene and, from time to time, on select readings that hopefully provide some illumination in these challenging times. In this second to last column I want first to thank my wonderful editor, Maureen Weber, for her positive feedback and encouragement, something every writer needs.
Maureen has also been instrumental in getting media accreditation for me to major film festivals where I’ve been able to seek out and bring you highlights from some of the best in new dramatic and documentary work. I’ve just returned from New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, Among the rewards of attending film festivals are serendipitous encounters and conversations. At Tribeca, purely by chance, I met Saskatoon-based Wally Start from the Western Canadian televion and film production company Angel Entertainment.
One of the highlights at Tribeca was a first look at an important and timely docuseries, Bobby Kennedy for President, that began streaming on Netflix April 27. I’ll wrap up with more best bets from that festival on May 9.
RFK died on my 16th birthday in 1968 while I was a student at St. Peter’s College, and it was there that a passion for cinema was awakened by Bede Hubbard’s “Ciné Club.” I was particularly moved by a showing of the 1968 film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. My first writing for the Prairie Messenger goes back over 35 years to the early 1980s at the instigation of then editor Father Andrew Britz.
What can movies tell us about the “signs of the times”? In 1982, reflecting on this quintessential form of popular culture, I wrote the following:
“Film is a topic which can be written about extremely seriously, but which is usually taken very lightly. For many movie patrons it is something to go with hot buttered popcorn on a Friday night. The mass movie-going public is between the ages of 15 and 24, when people start having more disposable income without as yet too many responsibilities. The great majority of commercial films are targeted to this age group. This is also where the competition for the entertainment dollar is fiercest. So today movie producers are resorting to ‘videotronic’ tricks and recycling-for-television, among other things, in order to bring in the tens of millions of dollars in revenue needed for most big releases to break even.”
Of course there will always be “art” films, “cult” films, and a hardcore of aficionados and critics with more than a passing interest in the hit parade of current offerings. But, let’s face it, movies for the masses are, more than anything, disposable entertainment.”
That critical assessment still seems mostly relevant today, though the sums involved are greater (hundreds of millions and billions of dollars), there is more and better production for television, and streaming services like Netflix have emerged as both major content creators, often of creditable quality, and viewing platforms with an expanding international reach.
With so much appearing on screens of all sizes, how to decide what to write about? The easiest, most accessible targets are the commercial products made for mass amusement, which are usually also the least interesting or enlightening. And there is little point going to film festivals unless it is to seek out a richer international diversity of films.
Festivals like Sundance that promote edgy independent cinema and documentary excellence have provided impetus and inspiration to explore cinematic worlds beyond mainstream Hollywood. What is most exciting about the arrival of movie streaming via the Internet is that many more films will become available to broader audiences, including those outside major metropolitan centres, than through the route of traditional theatrical releases.
The big screen will still be the best way to see some films. But the home screen will continue to bring a wider range of dramas and documentaries to more people than ever before. On balance, that is a good thing.
The search for work that is worth watching has been a central motivation as my writings on film became a more regular weekly feature under the heading “Screenings & Meanings.” It can be fun to trash a mediocre or bad movie playing at the multiplex, and there is generally no shortage from which to choose. My faithful editor, Maureen, says she enjoys when I use sarcasm. But if the passing parade of forgettable, meaningless fare doesn’t hold my interest, I cannot recommend it.
There can be reasons to address movie failures, ones I don’t like or even loathe. Still, it seems to me a waste of time writing about that which is simply a waste of time. So my approach has always been to look for something more than mere throw-away fare, for something that speaks to the culture of the times or that at least holds the possibility of meaning.
These and many more musings covering over 35 years of film comment are part of a book-length anthology currently in preparation — The Best of Screenings & Meanings: A Journey through Film — that will include some new content as well as selected columns drawn from the years 1999 - 2018. The aim is to have this out by the summer. It will be then be available as an e-book in pdf form that can be downloaded online at no charge from the website www.screeningsandmeanings.com. Print copies will become available to be ordered from the site for the cost of printing and postage.
In closing, there is just one new movie I want to mention which will be released in North America later this month. It is a documentary by the German master filmmaker Wim Wenders, who also directed my most loved film of all time, Wings of Desire, from 1987. The title is Pope Francis — A Man of His Word. A press release describes it as “a rare co-production with the Vatican, featuring exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and the pope addressing his audience directly, answering the world’s questions on life, death, social justice, immigration, ecology, wealth inequality, materialism and the role of the family. . . . Throughout the film, Pope Francis shares his vision of the church and his deep concern for the poor, his involvement in environmental issues and social justice, and his call for peace in areas of conflict and between world religions.”
There is also a presence of Saint Francis in the film, connecting back to the pope’s namesake, through accounts of legendary moments in the saint’s own life as a reformer and ecologist. In an era of deep distrust of politicians and people in power, when lies and corruption and alternative facts are the order of the day, Pope Francis — A Man of His Word, shows us a person who lives what he preaches and who has gained the trust of people of all faith traditions and cultures across the world.”
This is a movie opening I eagerly anticipate. I hope it will bring the story of Pope Francis and his inspirational message to many more people than will have read books about him (the best of which so far is the 2015 second edition of Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis — The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism).
In these testing times a movie about faith that sustains one’s faith in movies is heartening as both a reason to believe and to keep watching.