Picture credit: Showtime
Whether inspired by personal loss, an artistic or commercial failure, or responding to a changing global landscape, Cinema Year Zero will present texts on transitional works where an apocalypse meets a new beginning. As cinemas are forced to close and releases have ground to a halt due to COVID-19, notions of ‘contemporary’ in cinema have been turned on their head. Suddenly that which was ‘overlooked’ as the industry ploughed ahead might come to the fore. As spectators and filmmakers must radically renegotiate their relationship to cinema, we aim to rediscover those films that explore creativity in the face of the apocalypse.
The personal apocalypse can result in thematic, technical or formal rebirth. These films represent their filmmakers using the death of old film techniques to herald the birth of new ones, while those within the text find themselves at a moment of apocalypse. The apocalypse is not the end, but it is a demarcation point to recontextualise all that has come before it.
The hierarchy of criticism has flipped. The cultural capital (and surely that’s what the denizens of ‘Film Twitter’ run off) of seeing a film a few months, weeks or days before everyone else via the usual cinema rollout has gone. You can no longer take ownership of the micro-budget indie that you saw first at South By Southwest or Cannes – the one with a great PR team that’ll make you think you’re part of a grassroots movement. Cathy Brennan’s article on Patricio Guzmán’s The Cordillera of Dreams (2019) is in some part an effort to extrapolate meaning from film beyond its festival setting. If these institutions are hopelessly corrupt and inherently capitalist, she asks, then how can the anti-capitalist films that play at festivals properly function?
The COVID-19 outbreak is one of few world events to have directly affected nearly everyone on the planet, certainly everyone in our immediate purview, Now every subject – cinematic or otherwise – is now seen at least partially through that lens. In a perfect world, the eternal Present that must apparently pervade every film we watch, new or old, would be completely done away with during the pandemic because there are so few ways we can relate most films to our current situation. In Anna Devereux’s essay on Chinatown (1974), she questions why the radical messages of its text have been repeated again and again in Hollywood without systemic change. Just as This Is Not a Film and Contagion are re-evaluated for their resonance to The Moment, it is certain that upon its release, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Days (2020) will be received as a social distancing masterpiece.
If the contemporary doesn’t exist, can we examine film for its own sake? Root around at our own pace and length, to just see what we find, without deference to hot takes or any of the other bile that comes from the constant review cycle? There was a frustrating phenomenon last winter: while everyone wasted their time arguing over Jojo Rabbit, very formally ambitious and politically motivated American films like Dark Waters and Richard Jewell and A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood were overlooked; film-adjacent people with the clout to steer the conversation just asked why these film had been ‘slept on’, before relitigating dull conversations about Scorsese’s treatment of women. Shouldn’t there be a place to give these films consideration? To look at individual films less as something to slot into an ongoing discourse than as cinema without a zeitgeist? Joseph Owen puts himself in the shoes of a particular 1920s audience member for a reconsideration of The Passion of Joan of Arc, taking the century-old film out of its memorialised tomb and reinvigorating it with the raw power of its initial debut. Meanwhile, Tom Atkinson’s piece on 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, locates the film’s messaging amidst a blur of digital images.
Instead, we find comfort in the past. Filling the gaps in our cinematic knowledge.
With everyone burning through their watchlists, it begs the question: what for? What is the purpose of cinephilia without sustained engagement? If there’s no BFI season to centralise our discussions about filmmaker X or Y, then in what vacuum do you binge? For example, the BFI Japan 2020 season has now had its two key selling points – the chance to collectively experience classic cinema, and the season’s proximity to the Tokyo Olympic Games – neutered. The films in the season, from Kurosawa to Ozu to Godzilla, they promise, are now simply being made available for rent on BFI Player, the institute relegated to another arm of Amazon Prime Video.
Some collective viewing habits have been learned over the last few months, and not just via the Netflix Party. The Cinephobe runs a near constant stream of rare and cult cinema that ranges from Frederick Wiseman to Kichitaro Negishi. The venerable Another Gaze put on a celebration of Sarah Maldoror, the French West Indies filmmaker who was sadly lost to Coronavirus in April. Programmer Amos Levin, whose Glory and Dignity season runs at This Light and features Maldoror’s Sambizanga (1972), expands on the role of the curator and the significance of revolutionary cinema in this very volume. These, and dozens of other online events have managed to steer conversations somewhat. Cinema without zeitgeist.
It’s not about providing an alternative to publications like Film Comment, even as that particular magazine sadly seems to be in its death throes; it’s more about our existing in an era of film criticism where it is easy to feel disenfranchised with some of what we’ve seen and experienced (when Sight & Sound do their once-a-decade survey of the greatest films of all time in 2022, will Contagion be a ubiquitous candidate? The magazine’s desperate plea for populism is so degrading that Soderbergh’s film will probably rank somewhere between Persona and Paddington 2). Thus, we’re trying to carve out our own niche simply for the sake of expressing ideas about cinema that we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else, but without the nebulous lack of editorial rigour in something like a personal blog.
The value of this ‘slow criticism’ is the more nuanced appreciation of art, especially in relation to its politics. Whether it’s in Ben Flanagan’s deconstruction of loaded political symbols in recent releases Bacurau and The Hunt or Rhys Handley’s reflective examination of dashed working class dreams in Billy Liar (1963), our first volume displays just a small part of the potential in Cinema Year Zero. ‘Small’ is important – having grown from a male and pale group chat into a publication featuring a somewhat diverse but still majority-white, majority-male set of contributors, we acknowledge the inherent and manifest bias of the publication in its first iteration. We’re committed to engaging with art politically, but we are also committed to giving marginalised voices the chance to write about that which interests them. The first way to do that is by paying our contributors for their work, which we are committed to achieving. For a publication this size, £20 is a standard rate. To commission another 6 pieces for the next issue at that rate would cost £120, which we see as achievable. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon for extra content, including podcasts, essays, and more!
This project was conceived of near the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown; it is now being published as the world is emerging from its collective quarantine into… ‘a New Normal’? A reversion to how it was pre-lockdown? It would be foolish to speculate on what comes next, though in terms of cinema, the altered landscape of the autumnal movie season, especially the festival circuit and awards speculation, may have a positive effect on cinephilia. But what of cinemas, the physical spaces where we enjoy film collectively? For that, we can only look back, as Alonso Aguilar does in his memorial to pre-pandemic cinema-going that stretches from Twin Peaks: The Return to Goodbye, Dragon Inn.
Cinema Year Zero will periodically present volumes of essays on a different theme, starting with Volume 1: Apocalypse. Writers are then given the freedom to interpret that theme as they see fit. As can be seen in this first volume, it has yielded a wealth of ideas from very talented writers, with whom we’re proud to have worked. So, without further ado, please enjoy the first volume of Cinema Year Zero: Apocalypse.
Billy Liar by Rhys Handley
Rhys Handley deconstructs the hopelessness of the Macmillan era in Billy Liar.
Chinatown by Anna Devereux
Anna Devereux examines cycles of violence in Chinatown and Twin Peaks: The Return.
The Cordillera of Dreams by Cathy Brennan
Cathy Brennan uses Patricio Guzman’s The Cordillera of Dreams to explore the romantic myth of film festivals.
Glory and Dignity by Amos Levin
Programmer Amos Levin goes in-depth on his curated online season of African revolutionary cinema, Glory and Dignity.
The Most Dangerous Game by Ben Flanagan
Ben Flanagan connects the dots between a 1930s thriller and two present-day genre pieces on white supremacy.
The Passion of Joan of Arc by Joseph Owen
Joseph Owen interrogates Carl Schmitt’s fascination with The Passion of Joan of Arc.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi by Thomas Atkinson
Thomas Atkinson untangles 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and its flurry of digital video.
La vida útil by Alonso Aguilar
Alonso Aguilar reminisces on the cinema as a physical space.
Cinema Year Zero: Apocalypse was edited by Tom Atkinson and Ben Flanagan, with additional development by Paul Farrell.
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Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!