Impact Film & TV talks to Watergate Cinematek, the latest of Nottingham’s film clubs which revved into life with an Independence Day double bill (reviewed here), and has since screened The Conformist as part of this month’s Scalarama festival. We spoke to freelance film critic and author of The Betamax Revolt blog, Christina Newland, and her husband and filmmaker Charles Newland, to find out more…
First up, what exactly is Watergate Cinematek?
Christina: Watergate Cinematek is a film club. Like it says on our website, we’re specifically interested in ‘70s Hollywood. Not Jaws or The Godfather; that’s the basic stuff, stuff I hope everyone has already seen. It’s not organised with any military precision. It’s just the two of us, writing lists and potential double-bills with a love for these whacked-out ‘70s movies that no one really watches anymore. I write programme notes, Charles designs the posters and logos, and we argue a lot about what to show. Our aim is to get these movies from such a rich cultural period shown, and especially to younger people. A lot of people my age and a bit younger – I’m 23 – seem to think that anything from before 1980 is basically forgotten, which is frustrating. So we want to try to remedy that. These movies still have things to tell us.
Why the Hollywood New Wave in particular?
Christina: I’ve always had an academic interest in the cultural and political climate of America in the ‘70s. You can guess from our name. The Nixon administration, the Vietnam War, the peace movement, the Black Panthers, second-wave Feminism, never before or since was American culture so rich and complex and revolutionary.
Also, so many of the movies from that period are mega-famous, but just as many fell through the cracks. These late sixties-early seventies counterculture movies, or really reactionary anti-hippie movies, where guys go on rampages killing hippies, like Joe (1970). The director of that movie is John G. Avildsen. The guy made Rocky, but no one remembers this other, weirder movie he did
Charles: It’s the most interesting period of American cinema, and there’s such a variety of great films, from all sorts of genres. Also, the thing that interests me is the idea of American movies being so influenced by European art films of the ‘60s. It’s also politically charged in a way that American movies hadn’t been before, whether they were right or left wing. Regardless of whether you personally agree with their politics, they were always interesting.
How did you go about establishing the Cinematek?
Christina: We went and asked our friends at the Broadway Cinema what we needed to do. We came with a list of films, sort of clueless. Steven Sheil and Chris Cooke, who programme Mayhem Festival, helped us to get started and pointed us in the right direction! After that, Charles made some great poster art for our 4th of July double-bill. We called it our Inauguration and smacked American flags on everything. Then we picked Vanishing Point and The Last Detail to show, partly because they’re both incredibly entertaining films from the early seventies
And the night was a great success. Speaking of which, what do we have to look forward to from you in the coming months?
Charles: We’re definitely planning on screening Paul Schrader’s movie Hardcore (1979). It’s a great, underseen, seedy movie – pretty divisive, too. It turns the vigilante film on its head – the person George C. Scott is trying to save doesn’t need saving. It’s really referential to John Ford’s film, The Searchers (1956). Peter Boyle is great in it, too.
Christina: And the other is Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980). It’s a film about the death throes of the counterculture, and Linda Manz plays this androgynous little punk girl who goes around yelling, “Disco sucks! Kill all hippies!” It’s a crazy, twisted movie.
We sort of deviated from form with Scalarama, which is a London-based initiative in the month of September. We’ve shown The Conformist and are going to screen a freaky horror movie called The Visitor, two Italian movies. They both have a relation back to ‘70s American film, but they aren’t strictly speaking what Watergate Cinematek set out to start showing.
Do you have a particular opinion on the local film culture in Nottingham?
Charles: You wouldn’t want a better city to run film programming or seasons; everyone at Broadway Cinema and Amy at Screen 22 have been so helpful in getting movies shown. People are really supportive here. They go above and beyond to help you out.
What about the other film clubs operating in Nottingham (Kino Klubb, Kneel Before Zod etc.)? Do you interact with them and attend their events or are you more of an insular operation?
Christina: We actually all operate under the same banner, a sort of film club collective called Cinema Diabolique. It’s great. We’re all there to support each other, attend and promote each other’s events, and pull strings for one another. We have the odd meeting and all have different cinematic interests, but it’s a lovely atmosphere. We figured that we should help each other by co-ordinating events around each other. We’re so excited for the 10th anniversary of Mayhem this October.
Christina, as both an academic and journalistic writer on the subject, what are your views on the changing nature of film criticism? Is it a dying art?
Christina: Well, it’s definitely been discussed a lot lately; film criticism exists on funny, uncertain ground, like most journalism. Because of blogs and free web content, it’s just harder to make a living from it. Even with print newspapers – the arts sections are the first to be laid off. So it’s not easy, but it’s something you persist with if you really love it. Being a freelance critic isn’t too much different from being a struggling artist these days.
I don’t think film criticism is a dying art. As long as well-written, thoughtful, passionate pieces are written, shared, and discussed, it can’t die. And there are some great critics around. I’d really encourage people to read Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, and Film Comment. It’s just the financial aspect that’s the issue. But the internet has also been a positive tool for uniting cinephiles and critics.
Criticism used to have a great deal more respect and cultural currency than it does now,particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s. People like Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, and Molly Haskell were taken as seriously as philosophers or literary critics. Now, everybody thinks they can be a film critic.
Ever get the urge to create something cinematic yourself?
Christina: No, not really. Filmmakers and critics have a symbiotic, often antagonistic relationship. Filmmakers sometimes resent criticism, and one of the nastier ideas is that film critics are all bitter, or are just failed filmmakers. I have zero technical prowess or interest. I’m interested in exploring, defending, and making a legacy for cinema through writing. I’ve never really seen it any differently.
Do you have any advice for any would-be critics?
Christina: Watch every kind of movie from every background, particularly the ones you aren’t too knowledgeable about. Read everything. Other criticism, academic stuff, history, fiction. Cinema doesn’t exist in a vacuum; other arts inspire and feed into it.
And Charles, as a filmmaker yourself, how do you work in regards to the relatively low key British film industry, and the even lower key local Notts scene?
Charles: We prefer a guerrilla approach to filmmaking. By and large, we’ve chosen to work completely outside of the system. But we’ve had our films shown at the BFI Southbank, Berlinale, and Gothenberg Film Festivals — amongst others. I’m currently in pre-production for my first feature film.
Any advice for wannabe filmmakers?
Charles: My advice to student filmmakers is don’t worry about funding. Just get whatever cameras you can get hold of, get some friends, and make a film.
What is it about film/the cinema experience that engages you both?
Charles: Once you’re sitting in a big, cavernous, dark room, there’s nothing else. It’s just you and the screen. The world could crumble around you and you wouldn’t know, you’d just be there, you and the film.
Christina: I’m going to steal from Roger Ebert here. Cinema generates empathy. It allows us to understand and empathise with individuals, cultures, and situations that we would otherwise never experience. It’s a window into other lives, real or imagined. There’s something magical about that. I could talk about this forever.
Do you see it as important for younger generations to maintain a wide diet of disparate films from throughout history, or should one keep focus predominately on the future of the art?
Christina: You’ve got to know your history to be invested in the future of the art. I’m not saying be backwards-looking. There are great movies coming out every year, even the odd masterpiece depending on who you ask. I just despair a little bit about young audiences. They’ve become so accustomed to this smash-bang style of editing that classical editing is unbearably dull for them. And it’s hard to understand why 70s cinema is so radical if you don’t understand traditional, classical movie language. Shot-reverse-shot, linear narratives….‘70s cinema dispenses with a lot of that. But when you’ve got this Tony Scott/Michael Bay, almost incoherent camera style, it’s….hard to get younger people to want to watch films that move at the pace of Casablanca, or even Breathless, for that matter.
Charles: It’s good to have both sides. All art is self-referential; everything new borrows from what came before.
So, keeping with the past, what would you recommend as key films for interested students to seek out?
Charles: We argued our way through this list of ‘70s movies. Some are seminal, others a bit weirder.
- Mean Streets (1973), Dir. Martin Scorsese
- Nashville (1975), Dir. Robert Altman
- Sorcerer (1977), Dir. William Friedkin
- Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Dir. Sidney Lumet
- Apocalypse Now (1979), Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
- Blow Out (1981), Dir. Brian De Palma
- Fingers (1978), Dir. James Toback
- Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Dir. Sam Peckinpah
- The Last Detail (1973), Dir. Hal Ashby
- Harlan County, USA (1976), Dir. Barbara Kopple
Christina: Also, just generally, I always try and get people watching Italian movies. So many people I know, even big history buffs, haven’t seen Rome Open City.
To end on a hopefully inspiring note, are there any quotes from filmmakers that particularly resonate with you?
Christina: Not a filmmaker, but Richard Yates: “The movies were wonderful because they took you out of yourself, and at the same time they gave you a sense of being whole. Things of the world might serve to remind you at every turn that your life was snarled and perilously incomplete, that terror would never be far from possession of your heart, but those perceptions would nearly always vanish, if only for a while, in the cool and nicely scented darkness of any movie house, anywhere”.
Watergate Cinematek is screening The Visitor at Broadway on Friday 26th September.
More information on Watergate Cinematek is available on their website here.
This interview appeared in edited form in Impact Issue #232
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