Escaping the Numbers Racket (2008)

My sixth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their April 2008 issue (No. 11). — J.R.

A personal highpoint for me at the 42nd annual voting session of the National Society of film Critics, held in early January, was successfully proposing two of the awards given that afternoon. One was for the best experimental film of 2007, which went to John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind — a beautiful 59-minute documentary about cemeteries and memorials in the U.S. commemorating political struggles, made by the writer-director of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), a dedicated independent who might be described as an “amateur” filmmaker in the very best sense of the word (much as Jean Cocteau could be described in the same fashion). The other prize, the “Film Heritage Award,” went jointly “to Ford at Fox, a 21-disc box set from Fox Home Video” and “to Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive for the restoration of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and other independent films”. I should add that only the first of these two awards was my own idea; for the Film Heritage Award, I was simply conveying and arguing on behalf of the proposal of an absent member of the National Society of Film Critics, Dave Kehr (a critic who writes the excellent weekly DVD column for the New York Times).

These two awards are considered so minor by most American publications that they weren’t even mentioned in the majority of their reports (including Wikipedia’s entry about the NSFC). But they still can have an effect: Richard Ashton, the director of Classics at Fox Home Video, reported back that our award had “huge reverberations” with their senior administrators and helped them appreciate the importance of his division’s work”. One concrete result of this is the recent welcome news that a “Murnau and Borzage at Fox” box set is now in preparation at the same company.

I don’t know what effect, if any, our award might have on the visibility of Gianvito’s film, which currently lacks a distributor. But it’s significant that apparently only one or two other members of the NSFC who voted had even seen the film —- suggesting that their collective decision to give it an award was mainly based on my description of it. My point, in any case, is that the compulsive habit of many viewers of weighing success according to the size of a particular audience —- what I tend to think of as the Numbers Racket —- is, in my opinion, an error. For me, it’s the quality of the audience that matters rather than the quantity.

One illustration that comes to mind relates to the impact of my own writing. With the exception of a dissenting article about Ingmar Bergman that I published last year in the New York Times, which provoked a lot of controversy, I’ve generally found that the articles of mine that reach the greatest number of potential readers are those that have the least impact. On the other hand, during the four successive years in the mid-1990s when I was on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival and therefore was able to attend the festival at Cannes, I wrote articles each year about the latter festival for Trafic, a French quarterly with a circulation of about 2,000. And after three or four such articles appeared, I received the following year, when I didn’t attend Cannes, a fax from Gilles Jacob, the festival’s director, politely asking me why I hadn’t published a Cannes article that year. If we recall that Italian neorealism and the French New Wave basically grew out of a few friends seated around a table, we might conclude that a film or an article affecting only a few people can still be significant — at least if the people involved are the right people.

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