Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why we need a shining Star.

My local community run cinema, The Star, has been publicizing a need to raise $65,000 dollars in order to convert their technology to show digital format films. The fear is that without this conversion the Star won’t be able to continue as a functional cinema in the Australian environment.

In addition to being one of a dwindling number of community run cinemas in Australia the Star is the only “art house” cinema in Bendigo, a regional Australian town of approximately one hundred thousand people. I’m not a huge fan of the term art house but there is no denying that the films shown at the Star, compared to Bendigo’s other more mainstream cinema are generally from smaller film studios, and include more characters that don’t conform to being white, wealthy, heterosexual and other stereotypes of “normal.”

My immediate thoughts on this matter in order were;
1. No! The Star must go on. What can I do?
2. $65,000 is an awful lot of money to be raising. How on earth is that going to happen?
3. Can I justify promoting this cause instead of promoting other, more bread-and-butter fundraising campaigns?

I’m not going to discuss thought number two in this blog post. Bendigo Council and Empowering Eaglehawk (the local traders association) are making contributions. For all I know $65,000 is quite achievable, if we all chip in. Also this is primarily a philosophy blog so I’ll skip to the philosophical concerns.

My primary philosophical concern is my vacillation between thoughts one and three. As I contemplate asking friends and family to join me in donating to the Star and as I contemplate how much to donate myself an embarrassing question occurs to me. Is fundraising for my local cinema just a feathering of my own privileged nest (or cosy two person couch, as that’s what the Star uses for seating)?  Shouldn’t my money and my friends’ money and attention go towards other more prosaic concerns like clean water in the majority world?

To answer these questions I want to illuminate what the Star really contributes to Bendigo. To do that we first need to consider what a cinema is. A cinema is a place where stories are told in moving image and sound, sure, but there are many places where such stories are told. In fact thanks to cyberspace, “films” to use their anachronistic title are shared anywhere we have a connection to the internet. And that’s possibly everywhere you go in a day if you’re reading this blog. The short film format in particular has never been so popular with facebook or twitter regularly guiding us to you-tube or vimeo. Perhaps we can declare that cinema is dead, but long live video.

This would be a loss however. What distinguishes a cinema from anywhere else is not what it does for us in telling stories but how we listen to those stories in a cinema. We listen without distraction and with devotion. If the moving image has become as ubiquitous as God is purported to be by believers – then the cinema is like a church, a place set apart specifically and reverentially for the object of its fascination.

Be honest– when was the last time you paid continuous attention for longer than an hour to any story told in moving image and sound? For me it was in a cinema. At home my best chance of achieving this is if my partner and I are both watching a dvd. Even then we’ll probably be stopping the film to put the chickens away, or make a cuppa or some custard.  Heaven help us if the film is boring at any point. Some movies don’t get finished.

On the internet there is simply no hope of my attention lasting that long. With a world of other information and entertainment only a click away then anything longer than ten minutes will almost definitely be interrupted. I recently made it thirty four minutes into an absolutely fascinating lecture by Douglas Rushkoff but I was watching it while making both apricot jam and fudge.

I’m not alone. According to a few internet articles which I skimmed and some videos I barely watched while opening another tab in my browser to check facebook, polls and experts recommend online videos be between two and half to four minutes long  or between ninety seconds and two minutes or  not much longer than fifteen seconds

Given that a cinema provides a rare space for reverent attention towards the moving image it’s fair to say that the loss of cinema from our culture would be a real loss to how video story telling is received. I believe this is important because there is something uniquely important about movies. Although this would take numerous essays to do justice I’m going to attempt to explain this unique value here in just a small part of this post.

I’ll begin by suggesting that wisdom only develops when we encounter the world rather than studying it from a distance. We need to meet, with all the unforeseen circumstances such meeting might bring, other “worlds” (from cliffs to factory farms to outer space) to incorporate them into our reality. Otherwise we only know about them. We will have only stayed in our world in which those “things” are mentioned. If this seems remarkable to you then consider how you learnt about members of the opposite sex, or your own body, or spaghetti or the flu.

Video stories when completed with editing, sound and soundtracks and particularly when attended to in a darkened cinema are a way to simulate the encounter of other worlds. They are our best approximation of dreaming. I have respect for the lucid dreaming communities but I think movies done right exceed their efforts.

Before any bibliophile stabs me with their library card I’ll acknowledge that books provide encounters with other worlds – sometimes better than movies do. But ask yourself this – would you finish a book you pretty much disagreed with? If so you’re exceptional. I for one will probably never make it from the cover to cover of some new age mash up of self-help and quantum physics. But I watched “What the Bleep do you know?”  and I watched it at the cinemas believe it or not. (Cinema Kino in Melbourne I should add so as not to tar the Star.)

Likewise if I wanted a friend to open themselves to the idea that the Jesus archetype is relevant to today’s world and not just as a long past historical event then I could probably find many books for them to read. None of them would have much chance of being opened. I would be the most dreaded Chris Kringle . On the other hand I could introduce them to the film, Jesus of Montreal and they would probably watch it to the end. Even if they loathed the movie they would get a sense of what appealed in it to me while only losing a couple of hours of their time. 

Neither of these worlds of string-theory inspired positive thinking or Jesus Christ vs the Catholic Church are going to get an airing at Bendigo’s other cinema, Bendigo Cinemas. That cinema is committed to carrying the movies that generally cater to the mass consumer market and which come with the guarantee of entertainment rather than disturbance. This doesn’t mean “bad” movies at all  - I loved both the Avengers and the My Little Pony movie. They even include the occasional grungy and atypical story. I saw Animal Kingdom there, albeit on their smallest screen.  Still the only times Bendigo Cinemas will feature a film with a non-white main character, it will probably be an animated pony or car.

This is why the STAR in particular matters. We need to go beyond the mainstream to gain the wisdom to address exactly the sort of issues that might legitimately call us away from the STARs funding concerns – issues like Australia’s treatment of refugees for example. The same is true if we just want to see more nuanced conversations about relationships and growing up than the Disney model would give us. Those conversations might include unwanted pregnancies or same-sex attraction. These elements of reality do get a decent showing in movies at the STAR.

You could argue encountering these marginilised worlds in a movie is unnecessary. Those worlds are all around us and even in our own lifes. Very few of us actually live out Hollywood norms. However until we see our atypical lives depicted on the big screen and given such respect I think we can censor even ourselves from ourselves. We tend to view our own difference as deviance – not a definining aspect of reality but an error in the code. The Star showed a documentary a while back about Australian roller-derby contestants - This is Roller Derby. While the film probably gave local roller –derby players very little new factual information it gave narrative worth to the Australian history of a sport sometimes just seen as a U.S. import. It changed what was included in “the real” story of roller-derby.

So there we have it. The train of my logic (or at least rhetoric) has brought us here. Cinemas are crucial spaces for us to pay attention to movies and movies are realistic ways (more realistic than books frankly) for people to encounter worlds beyond their own or even their own previously self-censored world. Those encounters produce wisdom. Lastly the STAR cinema is going to show the worlds that are far more rarely shown – worlds that can offer us the wisdom we need to tackle those competing bread and butter issues.

I’m not sure I’ve entirely convinced myself that supporting the STAR should hold a similar priority to addressing more mundane needs (giving money to Refugee Resource Centres for example). I just hope I have articulated how the two are connected. Losing the STAR will make affecting change in regard to a whole lot of issues harder. Currently I consider the STAR to have a profound and positive effect on my local culture. That’s something worth fighting for.

So donate.

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