PRAGUE, Czech Republic — After some years away from these pages working in Europe, I am excited to be returning to Cinema Without Borders with the relaunch of my news and views column, Border Crossings.
I’m equally pleased to be on board with a special project I’ve created for CWB readers: a comprehensive and ongoing film retrospective of the greatest decade of world cinema : the 1960s.
Most of us baby boomers remember the era and its cinema well, because we came of age when many of these films were first released or re-released.
Their stories marked our passage through some of the most extraordinary social and political upheavals of the 20th century: Vietnam, Algeria, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, detente, China’s Cultural Revolution, Kennedy’s Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Civil Rights Act, the Prague Spring, the first spacewalks, Flower Power and the pan-global student protests.
Is it any wonder that such a revolutionary decade became the Petri dish that nurtured so many insurgent and consequential filmmakers? Fellini, Bergman, Welles, Buñuel, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Kosintsev, Varda, Tarkovsky, Lean, Ford, Resnais, Melville, Truffaut, Godard – they all belonged to a group of fearless, fantasy-driven directors who’s creative capacity and mastery of form during a single decade of the 20th century can still leave a film lover feeling (to flaunt a film word) breathless.
A Personal Perspetive
I can still recall precisely what I felt when I first watched Lawrence trotting across Arabia in Cinemascope (excited of course, but confused by how anyone could ride that long on a camel with only one hump).
Or Jeanne Moreau joyously racing her two lovers across a bridge in the Jules and Jim, the camera ecstatically dashing alongside (pure poetry in motion, I was exhilarated).
Or the exquisite dance of hands in the Capulet Ball sequence of Zeﬃrelli’s Romeo and Juliet — and even better, the teenage Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey stark naked in bed and still cooing in iambic pentameter (shock and awe that Shakespeare could be so intimate… and unmentionable tingles for Romeo).
Or Mastroianni’s seaside musical parade of his life’s characters in the final scene of 8-1/2 (a sudden urge to join the parade and revert to my happy boyhood days in Naples, instead of my tortured adolescence in Iowa).
As an undergrad at Harvard in the 1970s — art cinemas were everywhere back then — these works and so many more were my virtual counselors. They helped me confront the world. They broke me open to the power and scope of cinema, from its most intimate to its most epic.
That’s the point of this online festival — to celebrate and share the movies that matter, the movies that need our reclaiming, from a decade that I believe still matters a great deal.
Why a ’60s festival now?
Like the 60s, we too are facing an unstable world confronted by multiple wars and a rapidly ticking nuclear clock.
But we’ve added a few existential innovations of our own: climate change, political radicalization, mass
disinformation and the erosion of democratic norms, to name a few.
Not even Dr. Strangelove could have predicted this kind of future shock — although that and several other movies came eerily close. In our festival, I’ve listed such films under a theme called “Destinies.” I hope folks take the hint.
As we run headlong towards these inflection points, now seems a perfect time to step back and take stock. What can these fictions from our cinematic past, by some of the greatest storytellers in film history, tell us about the all-to-real “future” we live in today?
It’s how these directors responded to their own crazy historical moment that matters: they innovated.
Just as Moreau’s Catherine re-invented the tenets of love in Jules and Jim, these artists swept across the screen making, breaking and sometimes faking the rules of narrative and non-linear storytelling. They discovered new ways of shooting love stories, psychological dramas, documentaries, fantasies, westerns, animations and musicals, of exploring the camera’s relationship to the audience and — behind the Iron Curtain — of negotiating the constant threat of regime censorship.
Just look at a few of the footprints they left behind — and which we’ll track in our festival:
- The epics of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick
- France’s New Wave and the radically self-conscious cinema of Godard
- The extravagant fantasies of Fellini, the psyche-scapes of Antonioni and Bergman, the surrealism of Buñuel.
- The wry satires of the Czech New Wave
- The propagandistic pyrotechnics of Soviet cinema
- The anti-heroics of Italy’s Spaghetti Westerns, vs. the myth-making of John Ford
- The quietly radical human landscapes of Japan’s new wave
- The birth of Hollywood’s “raging bulls” and the rise of American independent cinema
- Brazil’s revolutionary Cinema Novo
- Some of the most innovative and popular movie musicals of all time
All this and more in the short span of 10 years. Once again…breathless.
A Few Pesky Questions
The sobering fact for film lovers today is that true cinema — in the classic sense of cinema’s media supremacy — is already dead. Gone is the truly collective movie- going experience, the cultural habitat that once nursed the
obsession for movies as our favorite national past-time.
These days, there are just too many too-tiny screens, too many too-huge distractions. From streaming to gaming
to AI, cinema’s siren call has been overwhelmed by a busy signal.
The once-great “moviegoing” experience has been radically transformed and miniaturized into mundane click-throughs of thumbnail icons on your home screen. Who wants to watch Lawrence trot across Arabia on a cellphone? It’s enough to drive a Baby Boomer batty.
And so our festival starts with a question, or rather a series of them: How can we still experience true cinema in a world of Lilliputian screens? Can we find a new, more panoramic context for watching great films? And how can we recreate, more than two generations later, the kind of raw energy these works once generated? Is it even possible?
Is there a way we can raise the “dead”?
The Big Picture
If there is, we’ll find it by celebrating the movies themselves.
Sadly, we can’t present these films on the truly wide screen they deserve — we’ll be watching them at home and discussing them on even tinier screens via Zoom. But the festival has been designed to be panoramic in scope —our own kind of Cinemascope:
- 250 films
- 155 directors
- 23 countries
- 2 movies a week
- 4 screening seasons
Each screening season lasts about 7 months, during which time we’ll screen and discuss around 30 double features — a total of roughly 60 feature films.
That’s a big program because it#s a big film legacy. In fact, it’s more of a marathon.
The truth is, no festival programmer can just “shrink” this decade’s extraordinary output into a handful of good movies and do any justice to its breadth and creativity. This is not Alice taking a “Drink Me” potion to squeeze through a tiny door.
In our Wonderland, we simply decided to make the door bigger instead of the festival smaller. Problem solved.
Better still, the program is designed so that participants can choose to come in or go out of that door whenever they like. They can join as many or as few Zooms as they have time or desire for. No potions needed.
Of course, those who commit to “the long run” of this marathon (or the big door, depending on your metaphor) will, in the end, be the most rewarded.
Nor does the film line-up need to be viewed in consecutive order. The program isn’t designed to be a linear examination of film history, but rather an eclectic adventure in expanding the frontiers of our film appreciation. (It really is a Wonderland).
Best of all, each of the festival’s four screening seasons has been programmed to be a self-contained module that by itself gives a comprehensive overview of the major film trends, themes and players of the 1960s.
So no matter what season you choose to participate in, the concepts of “radical subjective continuity,” “mise-en-shot” and “Sophia Loren’s favorite on-screen co-star” will never elude you again.
Selecting the films
Any film selection for any festival has some built-in personal bias. For Screening the Sixties, I have chosen films based, foremost, on a single criteria: how compelling is the film as a viewing experience, 60 years after its original
release? Does it still carry Some import, some relevance for viewers today?
Under these guidelines, the fact that a movie may have had some particular historical or intellectual significance when originally released isn’t as important as whether it still holds any “staying power,” whether it can leave an echo, a footprint, in our own time.
This isn’t to say that all films in the program are masterpieces — far from it. A very few may even be borderline mediocre. But there can be virtues in mediocrities, if they feature enough interesting elements to trigger discussions that are worth our time and focus. All these movies share at least this minimal floor of consequence, and most of them rise far above.
They are all, I believe, worth the wait of 60 years.
Our Weekly Zooms
An important element of the festival is that all movies will be screened as double features. Unlike “loner” screenings, doubled-up movies take on different colors when they absorb the reflections of a nearby film. If we pair the right two films together, there’s an unusual chemistry between them. They have something to say to each other.
This, too, is part of our search for new contexts that can make an “old” film seem seem as if it were born yesterday. (And many of these films will likely be seen for the first time by most attendees.)
Each week, participants will be sent links for the films to be discussed the following week, along with background information on the films. (I’ll have more about festival logistics in an upcoming column.)
Over the course of the festival we also may entertain guest hosts to lead the discussions, including various critics and film professional friends from both sides of the Atlantic.
Here I must give a shout-out to my good friend, the respected German film critic Wolfgang Ruf. Wolfgang is a screenwriter and the former artistic director of the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in West Germany, as well as a fellow jury member with me at the Central European Film Festival for many years. He is an expert on Central European and Soviet film, and his guidance to programmings films from these territories was invaluable. I’m excited to have him having him join our group and share his knowledge and storytelling.
invaluable. I’m excited to have him having him join our group and share his knowledge and storytelling.
Finally, our festival will be a forum where we can also share personal memories of how some of these films may have influenced or even changed our lives. This is important, because ultimately movies — good movies — must move us.
Generally, that means in the direction of the positive. But why shouldn’t we allow ourselves to be moved beyond our comfort zones — even to loathing or offense — if a particular film is responsibly provocative? The ‘60s broke all kinds of boundaries, and with any luck, we may find a few in ourselves to break as well.
We welcome any film lover with an outlook or an opinion to share, who is willing to put in the time and consideration these films deserve. That means anyone from a hopeless enthusiast to a hardcore cineaste.
So if you are an aficionado of ‘60s films and find the time and foresight to give us a little hindsight, come join us in our Screening the ‘60s — A Cinema Legacy online film retrospective.
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START DATE AND TIMES: Our online Zooms will start Sunday, January 7, 2024.
Zooms last 1-1/2 hours and are held every Sunday at 11 am Pacific Standard Time, 2 pm Eastern Standard Time, 7pm Greenwich Mean Time and 8 pm Central European Standard Time (the time zone of the host, James Ulmer),
HOW TO WATCH THE FILMS: A week before the scheduled Zoom discussion, I will send out the the links to that week’s double feature. It is strongly encouraged for everyone to watch the films on the largest home screen possible.
ENROLLMENT: Each Zoom will have up to 10 slots for active participants in the group discussion, and an unlimited number for those who wish to audit the Zooms (posing questions and comments via the Chat function).
RESERVATIONS: For a flexible festival like ours, where people can attend or opt-out as their own schedule permits and where the discussion size is limited, reservations will be required for each double feature.
Reservations open on the Monday before the Sunday Zoom. Spots are limited to keep the discussion forum intimate and give everyone the opportunity to contribute if they wish. So please book early.
You can request to be an AUDITOR if you like, otherwise the first 10 requests will be signed up as PARTICIPANTS.
READY TO ENROLL? Please send your reservation requests to email@example.com.