Film Festivals and Catwalks: Life on the Red Carpet

February 21, 2009 at 3:32 am

Speaking on BBC 4 in 2008, fashion queen Vivienne Westwood complained of the exhausting treadmill of the fashion world: as soon as the showcase of the season is over, she said, the new ‘treadmill’ cycle kicks in, and designers are expected to come up with fresh new ideas all the time. This excessive pressure on incessant creativity is something she identified as a downside of the profession. In this, Westwood’s remarks are in direct dialogue with festival veteran Moritz de Hadeln’s description of the film festival business as an exhausting cycle that compares to a ‘conveyor belt’.

Indeed, the world of film festivals is, in many respects, comparable to the fashion industry (including its hierarchical structure that distinguishes between haute couture and prête-à-porter). Film festivals, however, have difficulties keeping the right balance between the periodical nature of the event and the steady flow of supply of product (films). Unlike the film festival business, the fashion industry is perfectly vertically integrated in a sense that whatever is made in the ateliers is sure to be showcased at the catwalk, and the continuity of supply is steadily linked to a guaranteed cycle of showcasing opportunities. In that, the events of the fashion industry exist for the purpose of servicing the output of the industry: whatever is made, is shown. In the case of film festivals, however, the linkage between film production and film exhibition is much looser and conditional.

Similarly to the fashion week cycle of catwalk events, the festival business is in the category of ‘event management’. Both thrive on excess and celebrity, both rely on limelight attention and media coverage, and both need a constant supply of (seemingly) new product. They are both likely to be affected by the economic downturn as well, yet recent writing I see in places like Financial Times or Business Week has made it evident that journalists are surprised to realize that, amidst all the gloom of the financial downturn, both the catwalk and the film fest red carpet seem to not be particularly affected so far.

The redness of the red carpet at the film festival steps and, frequently, at the catwalk, is yet another aspect that invites comparisons. It is a similarity that has been discovered and is already exploited in the context of some media: A few months ago, for example, I came across an hour-long show on a TV channel called Fashion TV, which usually broadcasts endless fashion shows. This time around, however, it was not a fashion show but rather a lengthy reportage from the glamorous Rome festival, naturally mostly focusing on the arrivals of celebrities and their few minutes-long presence at the red carpet. (There weren’t any high profile celebrities featured in the show, but the ones that were shown were usually good looking Italians of superb elegance, thus the programme was more fashion than cinema; it can be viewed by clicking here.) Likewise, the comparisons abound when one watches the new documentary on Karl Lagerfeld (Lagerfeld Confidential, 2007), which contains a number of scenes where the camera closely follows the designer in his numerous catwalk appearances: it is as if navigating through the space of a top tier film festival.

The catwalk skills of fashion people have been occasionally exploited by film festivals: In 2005, for example, designer Nino Cerutti was invited to serve at the jury of Berlinale, and a Lagerfeld photo exhibit was on display at Moscow IFF in 2008 (this was their way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Cannes Film Festival). It may be a link that should be exploited on a more regular basis, however: Tilda Swinton makes for a perfect jury head at a festival, but I can see Viviene Westwood in the same role equally successfully as far as the PR aspect of the business is concerned; Lagerfeld, respectively, can easily upstage many seasoned red carpet players. Only I have no idea if Westwood/Lagerfeld and their likes actually like the movies…

© Dina Iordanova
21 February 2009

Epics of national pride: The international exposure

February 14, 2009 at 12:03 am

I am curious about the international presence of all those international epic sagas that are made with the ambition to showcase glorious national history. Such films are suitable mostly for internal national usage, but in some cases get exported world-wide, even though remaining self-contained and of limited niche interest in the context of such releases.

A project of this kind was in the centre of attention in my native country, Bulgaria, in 1981 – the year when the 1300 anniversary of the establishment of the first Bulgarian state in 681 was being celebrated. The film 681- Velichieto na hana was an epic saga telling the glorious history of the nation’s founding father, Khan Aszparuh. Based on a novel by respected historian Vera Mutafchieva, the film was made in two versions. Khan Aszparuh (1981) was an extended three-part Bulgarian version, whereas 681: Velichieto na hana/ 681: The Glory of the Khan (1981) was an English language version of the same film, based on the same script, made by the same director and starring the same actors, only shorter and made with international export in mind. Needless to say, the film went largely unnoticed internationally. Nonetheless, this is one of the few Bulgarian films that can still be found in vernacular Western distribution today, and certainly a curios project that provides a good glimpse into the way such national epics are produced and publicized. I have occasionally had the chance to hear from American and West European academics engaged in teaching Bulgarian culture and history that they have used the film in the context of their work.

Kazakh-financed Nomad, for example, a technically proficient epic tale of the glorious beginnings of the Kazakh nation in the 18th century filmed on the initiative of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev, was tackled as a project of national importance and made for $40 million with French assistance. It dealt with alternative narratives of the Kazakh past aiming to give boost to emancipating the nation’s historical identity from the Soviet shadow. Conceived and executed as a product clearly geared toward international markets, the project was completed with the directorial involvement of well-known diasporic US-based Europeans (Czech Ivan Passer and Russian Sergei Bodrov). The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and distributed by the Weinstein Company who secured an international and a North American release, but only had limited impact.

Similarly, the US distribution of Suriyothai, a lavish 16-th century spectacle of national pride from Thailand, featuring majestic battles and elephant battles that are said to have directly influenced Oliver Stone Alexander’s Asian battle scenes, was treated as a project of utmost national importance, aimed at getting the film a foreign Oscar nomination (Jirattikorn, 2003). Its carefully-orchestrated U.S. release took place with assistance from Francis Ford Coppola, a personal friend of director Yukol, who adapted a version of the film for the North American market. North American theatrical distribution was handled by Sony Picture Classics (which placed a total of twenty two prints in circulation) and the DVD – by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, making Suriyothai one of the few Thai films readily available in the West. It enjoyed good critical reception but it did not bring significant revenues.

Clearly, such national projects remain of utmost significance within the context of the producing nation. It is often the case that all instances of foreign distribution and acclaim for these films are given disproportionate attention domestically, thus creating the impression that the national saga has been truly influential internationally. In reality, these are films that remain primarily of academic interest and most often end up used in the context of area studies. In her analysis of the discourse surrounding Suriyothai, for example, anthropologist Amporn Jirattikorn (2003) argues that the film’s construction of ‘Thai-ness’ effectively promotes a narrative of self-sufficiency and positive isolationism, thus furthering the ideology of the ability of Thailand to remain intact by colonizing flows and to maintain its sovereignty today like it has been able to do in the past. And indeed, given the fact that Suriyothai was distributed internationally but never reached the popularity that had been planned for it, it may be noteworthy that Thais have not made further efforts to get into Western distribution the two subsequent epic dramas made by Suriyothai’s director Yukol, thus confirming Jirattikorn’s commentary on the ideological underpinnings of self-sufficiency, conscious distancing from the West and focusing on cultivating discourse on Thailand’s history exclusively within the country. Could it be that the decision of the Thais is suggestive of an attitude that is skeptical of the chances for an intra-cultural dialogue? And if this is the case, is this stance limited only to those Asian nations that are known for isolationist national ideology or it reflects a wider approach?

*Jirattikorn, Amporn. ‘Suriyothai: Hybridizing Thai National Identity Through Film,’ Journal of Inter-Asian Cultural Studies. Volume 4, Issue 2, August 2003, p. 296-308.

* * See dedicated pieces on Nomad, Suriyothai and other recent international epics in the Epic Cinema section of DinaView.

© Dina Iordanova
7 February 2009

Who is Your City? Tyler Brûlé, Part II

February 7, 2009 at 4:21 am

Here is where Tyler Brûlé comes into the picture. This is the man who essentially picks up where Richard Floridaa drops it. Brûlé is not only aware of the ‘spikiness’ of the world today and of the intense condensation of creativity in some of its select spots. Unlike Florida who forsakes his important premises and volunteers to limit his findings to the US (a place that can easily be questioned as a sole source of innovation today), Brûlé identifies the places where creativity thrives. And then he spend all his time circulating between these places and reporting on them.

No wonder, his itinerary does not go through North America very often. He much prefers touching down in Tokyo, Copenhagen, Seoul, Zurich, or Sydney. A native of far away Canadian prairies, Brûlé is a man of inexhaustible determination and commitment to propagating the lifestyle that he has discovered for himself and has made a selling point for others. He still mostly goes by the fame of having founded Wallpaper, the great design magazine that is still better known than his more recent project, Monocle.

I do not know why he has left Wallpaper and has come to develop other projects, but Brûlé is now mostly focused on projects that promote the creative lifestyle and the places that people like Florida miss out on. He tried a short-lived TV show (I believe it was on BBC TV 4) and is now mostly visible through ventures like Monocle magazine (and a recent shop in London and other locations), and his writing for the Financial Times.

Brûlé writes a weekly column for Saturday’s Lifestyle section of the Financial Times, and has been doing so for about two years now. The topics are somewhat repetitive and reading his writing week after week gives the feeling of monotony and, ultimately, boredom. But what he talks about is, in principle, exciting to me: airports, design, modern architecture, user-friendly cities, comfortable travel, nice hotels, luxury shopping, global creativity. He is often quite critical of the country (England) and the city (London) where he is primarily based. This came across particularly clearly in a column entitled Band Aid’s Won’t Save Britain (18 July 2008), a piece which I found truly enjoyable as it was summarizing precisely what people like myself and friends think of this country’s misguided self-esteem and antiquated management styles. But, I am in the minority here, as usual. Brûlé’s ‘rants’ , especially when they get to praising non-Western locations and to criticizing the metropolitan hubs of the West (as it were, untouchable by default), routinely trigger angry (and sometimes approving) reactions from readers on the letter pages of the FT, as well as in the blogosphere or other media. Like this blog post, for example, which simply invites him to shut up.

Monocle magazine is Brûlé’s main undertaking at the moment. I have been subscribing for a year now, and feel I can say a few things about it ( my 14 year-old son, who is interested in style matters, reads it with great pleasure). I will not subscribe for the next period, though, as I did not think it was value for money: you see, while the magazine costs £5 if purchased in a shop, the subscription costs you £75 for 10 issues. I was curious to see what could possibly justify the 50% increase in price when subscribing, as the only identified extra benefit was access to the web-site. And now, after having had access to the web-site for a year, I do not think it is worth it, as even though the web-site is nice, there isn’t anything much on it to make me feel I have got my money’s worth. And I do not see the point paying for the chance to watch all sorts of promotional videos for which the publishers already have been paid by the promoter. Normally, subscriptions are cheaper than purchasing a magazine in a shop. Reversing this and making the subscription more expensive than a shop purchase is certainly a cunning approach to marketing, and I would be curious to find out if it has worked, in principle. I am sure that there are people out there who would feel nice to know that they are simply taking up the chance to spend more when they could spend less. I do not belong to this group, however.

Monocle the magazine engages in diverse promotion of a cosmopolitan yappy lifestyle for those who have good taste and who know that the nicest places to be are not the ones that Florida is discussing in his book but are more likely to be found today around Osaka or Stockholm. In line with the current manga-craze, the magazine has commissioned its own series, Kita Koga, which features the adventures of a young cross-breed advernturer, Niels Watanabe, and which is executed by a Japanese cartoonist and attached to each issue of the magazine (a collector’s item, in other words). Monocle features a range of articles on global cities, from Beirouth to Reykiavik, and never limits its worldview between the East and the West Coast. What I like about the magazine is its great vision of the world as a globalized place where a variety of people (and not only Americans) exist and spend their lives, its concern with livability and its daring encouragement of truly creative and diverse lifestyle choices, its excellent advertising and style trends features, its competence in assessing important aspects of modern travel, and, in general, its relentless concern with issues of the quality of life in the modern globalized age. What I do not like about Monocle is the repetitiveness of its endless lists (it feels like crushing monotony after some time), the tiny font size used, and the subscription price.

But even though I am dropping my subscription and will probably not continue following this publications, I cannot stop admiring Brûlé’s inventive entrepreneurship and his commitment to promoting his vision of the lifestyle of the creative classes (precisely the area where Florida fails so badly). Monocle is also used as a platform for selling stuff which is of the style and quality personally approved by the man in charge. There is an on-line shop, and there is a shop in London’s Marylebone, featuring items developed in partnerships with high brow brands such as Comme des Garçons (Japan/France) or Valextra (Italy), largely reflecting the nature of Brûlé’s global trendspotting travails. You can buy a small selection of high quality items at extremely high prices: the target audience here is clearly yappies with a good style sense. (It would be interesting to see if the venture will survive beyond the current financial downturn, provided we have already seen predictions that services that rely on the same clientele, like the Bloomberg media empire, may be severely affected soon). What I find particularly interesting is this ‘interdisciplinary’ entrepreneurship of sorts, which spans media (magazine, web-site with videos, on-line shop), advertising (some of the best advertising can be seen on the pages of this magazine), events (they have branched out in some conference organizing lately), and retail.

© Dina Iordanova
7 February 2009