“Art is the Criticism of life” q. Matthew Arnold
At the turn of the 20th century society saw the introduction of “moving pictures”. Now in the 21st century, film has become a potent medium for communication and film festivals provide a window into the power of this art form. These festivals are not simply a space to showcase a niche selection of films to cater to elitist tastes, but provide an opportunity to break from the norm, offer something outside the “expectations of everyday” and challenge audiences to reflect on society and culture as we know it. Marshall McLuhan contended that human history is a succession of acts that aspires to extend our capacity (Sontag 1965: 299). Furthermore, what succeeds from a radical change of our environment is the shift in how we think and put value to things. At risk of sounding overwhelmingly intellectual, the transformation of art and its myriad of critiques can be highlighted in the film festival. To clarify, let’s consider Susan Sontag’s essay, Culture and the New Sensibility (1965) and my own experiences in attending the ACMI showcase of the works of Sara Driver as part of the MEL&NYC Festival.
Films are part of the art world and like a gallery, a film festival is a curated exhibit working to display a certain theme that invites the audience to ponder. Melbourne shares an affinity with New York City. Both are respective cosmopolitan meccas of creative expression coupled with an interest in and desire to be acquainted with its diversity. Yet, both are urban spaces experiencing a conflict of consumption and communication even as artists from various terrains of speciality work to present their own unique views of the world; often through the visual medium of film. However, as Sontag notes, film is associated as being a part of “popular culture” and explains that such culture adds little value to art as they’re manufactured objects created for mass consumption (Sontag 1965: 297). A festival dedicated to the influence and impact of the New York art scene also showcases how Melbourne has experienced a similar trajectory especially in grappling with socioeconomic indulgence and precarity.
For example, Sara Driver’s documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat presents the main subject as a symbol of such social precarity that afflicted many in downtown New York during the late 1970s while also conveying how art was the mode for many to escape and the ensuing legacy of this generation of artists. The McLuhan notion that artists are “experts in sensory awareness” (Sontag 1965: 300) is relatable to the culture of film festivals and the films that are presented in these settings are often on the fringe of the mainstream. These are films that work to convey a message, an idea or criticism that it isn’t burdened by consumer intent of major film studios.
Often some of the most profound films on view at festivals are ones about artists and their legacy to society. In relation to the importance of film festivals, consider Sontag’s view that art is the extension of life.
Sontag, S 1965, “Culture and the New Sensibility” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Books, England, UK, pp. 293-305