Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My Cinephile Story!

It seems hardly a week goes by without me reading some article in the newspaper, the web or a blog talking about theatres and revival houses in the US and UK closing down or being threatened to close down. This has also spread to video stores and libraries for old films. Just yesterday, I read a piece on Karina Longworth's blog about Abel Ferrara attending an Anthology Films Archive screening of Bad Lieutenant. The screening was held as a fundraiser for a video store in Manhattan called Cinema Nolita, of which proud Abel is a regular patron of. In general there is discontent in the air about the usual venues and supplies of quality cinema(Old & New) drying up. People don't know where they're next regular dosage of serious cinema is coming from. The general mood is one of change for the worse.

Two weeks ago, something of a similar nature happened in my sphere. The British Council like Alliance Fran├žaise and the Goethe-Institut is an organization that promotes British culture. It provides educational information to those who want to study in England and conduct tests of a similar accord. For me, it was a library. The first library I became a member of.

I joined the library four years ago. Then it still had videotapes and slowly, but cautiously, it began stocking a small supply of DVDs. I joined the library for educational reasons. It had the books and secondary sources needed for my majors. But right from the start I began abusing this privilege. For there in the corner was a stack of DVDs and my hands reached out to hold before my eyes registered it fully, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom.

This is an exact citation of the DVD edition available at the BCL, Mumbai.

I had heard of Michael Powell from Martin Scorsese's championing of his films or second hand as an obscure British film-maker. But I would never have dreamt that I would have had a chance to see the films when I joined the BCL library. The DVD transfer wasn't the best of course but the film was still magnificent. Unlike anything that I had seen before. When I joined the library, I expected it to be stuffy, officious and that it's DVD shelves would be limited to Oscar-winning bores and Merchant-Ivory stable(although there was that too). But the DVD collection of the library offered a school into all the obscure classics of British films. It made it possible to see David Lean's Hobson's Choice and The Sound Barrier before the Dickens movies and Brief Encounter. The library was also non-parochial to extend the criteria of British films to include Hitchcock's American films, all of Chaplin's Short Films, films made in England by expats like Polanski or Antonioni and even American classics like His Girl Friday, On the Waterfront, The African Queen. It also included the great Ealing films, the Losey-Pinter films. And one absolute rarity...the restored, uncut version of Orson Welles' MacBeth.

It seems strange to use British films as a foundation stone for my burgeoning cinephilia but that's how things worked out. I would never have been able to see any of the Archers films - Peeping Tom, The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going, A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - had it not been for the BCL. The same goes for Welles' MacBeth or Terence Davies' The House of Mirth and Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. Films which are unavaible on Bombay's TV screens, revival houses and in DVD stores. At best one can find VCDs in the wrong aspect ratio. Home Video never really took of in India as it did elsewhere. Most people would prefer seeing movies in the big screen over here. Only the kind of films that I read about and was interested in seeing was unavaible then. Things have changed slightly of course but it's still a long way away from creating spaces for showing films that might garner enough history to stir the collective mourning and outcry a place like Cinema Nolita, LACMA and others generate from its patrons. Leave alone a full scale strike as in the case of L'Affaire Langlois in the 1960s when cinephilia was attacked by the state and the state lost.

In the ensuing four years, the library expanded. It had a VHS collection(that included titles like Welles' The Trial, Julien Temple's Jean Vigo biopic) that was phased out and replaced by a DVD collection that is replenished on a monthly basis. Regular replenishment also saw fit to update the library's collection of film-related literature. Because of this collection, it happened that my withdrawals from the library had very little to do with my syllabus. Instead of Lives of the English Poets by Samuel Johnson, I would borrow David Robinson's biography of Chaplin, or maybe Peter Wollen's Signs and Meaning in the Cinema or Bill Krohn's Hitchcock At Work or Sight and Sound readers collating essays from different areas. Then of course there was the collection of back issues of Sight and Sound magazines that was available for members perusal. The exception being the latest and newest issue of the magazine which was unshelved and for reading only in the library(until the month ended and you could take a butchered and cut up magazine, removing all the articles and leaving only the latest movie and DVD reviews). So it happened I became a cinephile.

The Library is located in the Colaba area far down the end from Nariman Point. This area entered the international spotlight as the general topographic centre of the terrorist attacks that struck Mumbai 11months and 364days ago, as of this writing. In the same area are the cultural centers of the Goethe-Institut, the Asiatic Library, the British Council Library, Alliance Fran├žaise and the American Information Resource Centre. I saw a R. W. Fassbinder retrospective at the Goethe-Institut, I saw Visconti's Il Gattopardo projected on the wall of an antechamber at the Asiatic, I saw Hallelujah, Carmen Jones and Imitation of Life in the same day at the AIRC. The French, the land of cinephilia, took first prize for their regular monthly screenings and yearly retrospectives at the Alliance and their parochialism allowed for Antonioni screenings, Bunuel double bills, Youssef Chahine screenings, and a week of retrospective programming that included Ugetsu Monogatari, Sullivan's Travels and F For Fake This general period of movie screenings was opened up to me by my membership at the BCL.

From the first week of January next year, the physical library of the British Council will cease operations. It won't be open for it's members to peruse and browse at their leisure. It will shut down. The caveat is that it will shift permanently online. Books and DVDs and other items are now possible to be sent home within 48 hours of delivery. So gone is the surprise anyone would feel at discovering a Michael Powell forbidden classic on the shelves when one expected to find none. Gone too is leisurely exploration of Sight and Sound readers on the bottom shelves. Not to mention bizarre discoveries like the literal script of Alphaville stacked betwixt drama books(apparently someone believed it was made for the theatre). Now when everything is online, one must know exactly what one wants and has to trust in the all-encompassing reach of it's opac catalogue. When many of my discoveries happened outside this all-too-human program. But then there's still the French, they have Rohmer, Pialat, Godard, Renoir, Welles' Le Proces, Elaine May's Ishtar(my favourite buddy movie). The Americans have a ludicrous security check outside it's facility, all bags are passed through an x-ray conveyor belt, all cellphones are to be switched off(and this was well before last year's attacks) but where else can one read James Agee on Film, Who The Devil Made It and Why, Jonathan Rosenbaum's Movies as Politics, James Naremore's The Magic World of Orson Welles. But it marks the end of a brief but important period of my life.


  1. Loved this. Always like to hear about how others encountered the cinema, about pivotal experiences, and about marvelous places that make this possible.
    Your worries about the online catalogue reflect Walter Murch's concerns about digital editing: much good comes from being able to stumble on something you WEREN'T looking for. It applies to shots in an edit as well as books in a library.

  2. Libraries are the original source of the dialectical approach to history. The way books are stacked and placed in physical space in various catalogues and sections and subsections can decide the way you approach things or the way things are approched. Like in the library, there was a section of Oversize books where regardless of genres, everything was stacked together. So I found Krohn's Hitchcock book alongside a coffee-table book on U2, The Rolling Stones, print surveys of Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh and books about 20th Century architecture. The placement of the book mirrors the way Film(and Hitchcock) should be approached and the way Film(and Hitchcock) is approached by Krohn, who is of course the American correspondent of Cahiers du Cinema, where it all began. That's gone with an online catalogue.

    Alain Resnais' Toute le Memoire de la Monde is the first and last subject on the greatness of libraries as physical spaces. I saw that at the Alliance where it was programmed after La Notte.

  3. My unconscious seems to always anticipate what I will percieve in a film I would see shortly afterwards.

    I just saw Oshima's DIARY OF A SHINJUKU THIEF for the first time and there's a scene in a bookstore where Umedo Suzuki goes around picking up books and each time she picks up a book, a voice over plays reading out the lines from that book and this builds to a collage of literary excerpts. Stunningly done.

  4. Oh man! Don't get me started on this subject. My own cinema-starting experiences were courtesy of two rep houses in London in the eighties. In a posh pseudo-suburb called Hampstead there was the Everyman, where you could get carrot cake and organic coffee and probably hemp sandals, too, and you watched Renoir treble bills, or Welles, or Fellini, or Bergman, or, generally speaking, something respectable and educational.

    Then, let's say that killed the afternoon for you, so you took the tube six stops south on the Northern line and got off at Kings Cross - hilariously insalubrious, with drug-dealers and hookers and vagrants wandering around - to go to a place called the Scala, where you could, if you wanted, watch Godard trebles, but where most people went for Russ Meyer sessions, John Waters celebrations, where you found underground gay classics like "Thundercrack" and "Pink narcissus", where cats roamed free in the auditorium, there were murals of Monroe and Tracy and Bogart on the walls, and the sweet smell of weed floated down from the back row (where, from the sounds one occasionally heard, unmentionable things were taking place). On Saturdays, there were all-nighters, where I saw "A clockwork orange" for the first time, while it was still illegal in Britain, and generally revelled in horror quintuples, reeling out into the Kings Cross morning (not at all a pretty sight).

    Naturally, it's all gone now. The Everyman survives barely, but only as a super-comfortable regular cinema for lazy posh people, while the Scala is now a live-music venue. It's good as that, to be fair, but a mere shadow of what it was, when you could turn up any time after noon and find something playing and know that, even if you'd never heard of it before, it was gonna be fun.

    I understand that libraries and rep houses are uneconomic to run, time-consuming and money-eating, but they are, as you say, Arti, way better than the digital future.