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Godfrey Cheshire (#110 of 10)

Review: Moving Midway

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Review: <em>Moving Midway</em>
Review: <em>Moving Midway</em>

The idea of the “Obama movie” has quickly become a cliché, but it still seems an appropriate framework through which to consider last year’s remarkable Moving Midway, a documentary that film critic Godfrey Cheshire began making before most Americans even allowed themselves to believe a black man could be elected president. My first viewing was at the premiere at the 2007 Full Frame Film Festival, and I remember being filled with excitement and anxiety. Since teaching the only film class I took in college, Godfrey has remained a good friend and generous mentor to me, and over the two years preceding Midway’s completion, I had the privilege of hearing his stories about the filmmaking process. Naturally, I was worried about what I might say if I ended up being less than thrilled with the results. Halfway in, though, I heaved a sigh of relief, feeling something not unlike what I would later experience watching Obama’s great “race” speech. I went home that day and wrote Godfrey an email, telling him: “I really can’t think of another movie that has gone as far as yours in reconciling the love for Southern culture and family history with the sins and tragedies of the past.”

HND@Grassroots: Season 2, Episode 2, “Moving Midway,” with Godfrey Cheshire

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HND@Grassroots: Season 2, Episode 2, “Moving Midway,” with Godfrey Cheshire
HND@Grassroots: Season 2, Episode 2, “Moving Midway,” with Godfrey Cheshire

The second season of The House Next Door’s “Grassroots Tavern” podcast series begins, fittingly, with our second episode (twentieth overall) as I’ve not yet gotten around to editing the first (a multi-part summer-movies roundtable that I hope to go live in the coming week or so). Par for the stumblebum course.

Beyond that, a few other changes to the format: a new title (“HND@Grassroots”) and a rotating series of hosts, as indispensable House contributors John Lichman and Vadim Rizov are moving in ever bigger and bigger circles and can only devote so much time to weekly, extended drink ’n’ chat. You never know, though: the lure of Grassroots can be as captivating as the call of the Sirens.

Moving on from the pretentious purpling to Moving Midway, the primary subject of this installment. Godfrey Cheshire joins myself, John, and Vadim for a chat about his directorial debut, a documentary about his family’s North Carolina plantation that premieres in New York theaters today after a very successful festival run. We dovetail that discussion with some nine-years-later musings on Godfrey’s influential 1999 essay “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” You’ll find our conversation after the break as both audio file and text transcript.

 

Man on Borrowed Piano Wire: Follow-Up

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Man on Borrowed Piano Wire: Follow-Up
Man on Borrowed Piano Wire: Follow-Up

While this is intended to respond to several comments about my earlier post concerning Man on Wire, I would like to start by thanking James Marsh for his genial and interesting responses. He obviously got the spirit of the debate my post was meant provoke. His clarifications prompt me to make some of my own, beginning with a couple about the context in which I wrote my piece.

Man on Borrowed Piano Wire

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Man on Borrowed Piano Wire
Man on Borrowed Piano Wire

A couple of weeks ago I went to a press screening of James Marsh’s Man on Wire. I’d heard a lot of good things about the British doc, and indeed it has a fascinating subject in recounting the early career of French aerialist/conceptual artist Philippe Petit, especially his daring walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

But watching the film was not a happy experience. Try as I might to concentrate on its narrative, I couldn’t. After 45 minutes I walked out.

Keith’s Korner: Confessions from the Editor (#2)

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Keith’s Korner: Confessions from the Editor (#2)
Keith’s Korner: Confessions from the Editor (#2)

First off, the unexpected: Premiere.com’s firing of senior staffer Glenn Kenny is another sad milestone in the ongoing purge of print publication journalists, though I think it helps us to see that the current situation extends beyond the borders of mere hard copy. That’s probably what makes it so distressing—it can’t be restricted to a certainty, to a specific sphere of influence, to anything, really, beyond an observation that tenure (and its benefits) is the vanishing commodity of the moment.

Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part Two

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Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part Two
Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part Two

Do you think that the Death of Film, and the major changes in the world, have been an impetus for documentaries to gain the level of attention and prominence that they have? The death of film leads to the emergence of video, and the proliferation of video has allowed a lot more documentaries to be made.

The technology of low-budget filmmaking through video has allowed more people to make documentaries. It has made the whole food chain of documentary production, exhibition and distribution much more cost effective and easier for people in terms of making the films and getting viewer access to them. That has definitely stimulated things. Also, documentaries allow people to engage with what’s happening with the world, as I said before. Documentaries in many cases aren’t being produced by TV networks, which are doing the same sort of thing but very much under the corporate mandate. People understand that. You’re able to presume that what’s represented will be an independent viewpoint. In most cases, it’s a liberal or progressive viewpoint, but the key thing is that it is individual. A lot of that is in reaction to how corporate the media has become, especially television media, because whether or not Edward R. Murrow was the great hero that George Clooney would like us to believe, there was a greater chance for a strong individual point-of-view in the [news and nonfiction programs] of decades past. The corporate mandate has soured people on recent TV, and they distrust the coverage of such things as the War in Iraq [seen in such theatrical documentaries as Occupation Dreamland]. TV has tried to make up some lost ground with its Hurricane Katrina coverage, which has been the answer to Iraq. Michael Moore or Barbara Kopple or any individual documentary maker and can go out with relatively little money, make something, and get it in front of people that is heretical to any corporate party line. This is why movies are going to retain a certain cultural importance for a long time to come—specifically because of this.

But the rise of documentaries is related to the decline of European auteurs, and the failure of significant American auteurs to arise from and remain in the independent world in very significant numbers. If you look at the whole Sundance phenomenon, there was such promise there, but while you’ve got a few interesting directors coming up, most of them just go on to the majors or whatever. In the past, people would go to the independent theaters and art theaters for foreign films, and specifically the great tradition of European films. That has dried up.

Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

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Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One
Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

In 1999, film critic Godfrey Cheshire [left] wrote a compelling two-part essay for New York Press entitled “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” The article considered the transition from celluloid to digital technology within movie theaters, and the repercussions that would have on cinema as an art form. Predicated on the belief that the viewer responds differently to televised or digital images than film images, Cheshire expressed ambivalence and curiosity about that changeover.

To frame his argument, Cheshire provided definitions for terms normally considered interchangeable: “Film refers to the old, celluloid-based technology; movies refer to motion pictures as entertainment; and cinema refers to motion pictures as art.” Film and cinema, to Cheshire, are vitally linked, and that once film is removed, what is left may vaguely look the same for a short time, but that essentially video leads to the “overthrow of film by television—which is what this [shift] amounts to—will be related to a dissolution of cinema esthetics…The latter, which has implications beyond the realm of arts and entertainment, is my ultimate subject here. But let’s take one thing at a time.” The article has been reprinted all over the world, and was made the subject of a special colloquium at the Museum of Modern Art. It remains a valuable reference point for filmmakers, journalists and cinephiles.

But Cheshire himself admitted, “When the millennial clock ticks over, we will all be strangers in a strange land.” The technological and cultural landscape has changed rapidly since the publication of his article in ways Cheshire did not anticipate. Digital technology has accelerated the DVD revolution and the resurgence of documentaries. The Internet has affected how film criticism is digested by the public, and has fostered reactionary grassroots support among bloggers. Amidst these and other changes emerge new questions about film, movies and entertainment—as well as a few ironic surprises. Since leaving New York Press, Cheshire has continued writing film reviews for the North Carolina alternative weekly The Independent. But this self-professed “videophobe” is wrapping up production on a first-person documentary—shot on digital. It focuses on his family and their Southern plantation, which has been their homestead since 1739. In addition to his directorial debut, Cheshire has written two narrative screenplays and recently taught a course on the history of film at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cheshire was open to discussing how the changing times broadened his interests in film and filmmaking, as well as looking back on his landmark essay. The death of film and the decay of cinema led to the rise of video and new technologies. Amidst these transitions, Cheshire has managed to keep himself on the front lines—in more ways than one.