Film

Over Skype, Filmmakers Ponder Whether Cinema Is Dying

The latest iteration of the documentary series Room H.264, presented by the Museum of the Moving Image, considers the future of film and was made entirely in quarantine.

Filmmaker Bo McGuire leading a “heathen Bible study” in Room H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 (courtesy Museum of the Moving Image)

Since 2016, the Museum of the Moving Image has presented the four documentaries of the series Room H.264, in which contemporary filmmakers meditate on a simple question: “Is cinema becoming a dead language — an art form which is already in decline?” The context in which they consider this issue have changed with each film: since the inaugural episode, streaming services have consolidated even more power within the media landscape. The latest installment arrives amidst a far more drastic crisis — the global COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of having their subjects come to them at a single event as they’ve done in the past, directors Eric Hynes, Damon Smith, and Jeff Reichert recorded them via Skype, and they mused on the central question mainly in their own homes. The result, Room H.264: Quarantine, April 2020debuted online last week in a live-streamed event. The film and a recording of its follow-up Q&A (performed over Zoom) remains available to watch.

Hyperallergic was able to speak with Hynes, Smith, and Reichert via email. Smith explained:

Room H.264 began as a kind of tribute to the 1982 Wim Wenders film Room 666, wherein Wenders asked some of the most prominent directors attending the Cannes Film Festival that year to film themselves alone in a hotel room (the titular Room 666) responding to a question about the death of cinema. We first broached the idea of recreating his experiment in 2011. At the time, there was a lot of debate around how the new streaming services and user-generated content channels would change or perhaps efface the traditional experience of watching movies in a theater, and perhaps permanently alter the landscape of what we make and how we make it.

Previous iterations of Room H.264 broached filmmakers who were attending specific festivals, and their titles reflect this — Brooklyn, NY, June 2016 was shot at BAMcinemaFest, Astoria, NY, January 2018 at MoMI’s own First Look festival, and Columbia, MO, March 2019 at the True/False festival. This time around, it is simply Quarantine, April 2020, and the interviewees are directors whose work was supposed to be shown at various, now-canceled festivals this spring, such as South by Southwest, Tribeca, and First Look. In light of the near-total elimination of the traditional theatrical experience, the series’ main question takes on an entirely new tenor. Reichert said:

Toward the end of March, an editor I’ve worked with named Mark Lukenbill texted me out of the blue asking if there were any plans for a quarantine edition. I wrote to Eric and Damon pretty much immediately, and within a few hours we were all on Skype talking about what this version might look and feel like. We hadn’t been looking for a way to deal directly with the crisis, but once the idea was in the ether, we couldn’t not do it.

Conducting and recording the interviews over Skype presented unique challenges to the trio. Reichert recounted:

The toughest logistical moment was the hour or so we spent fiddling with different Skype recording options and then gaming out how each filming “session” would go. With the hotel room setups in the earlier film, there was always a bit of a rhythm and patter — subjects enter, we explain what’s happening, mic them, etc. We needed to rethink that so participants would be similarly properly oriented for what we were asking them to do.

Smith added: “There was also the nettlesome question of whether or not the signal would hold, since we were relying entirely on a stable connection for filming and collecting material. Luckily, we made it through most of the production without a major problem with internet traffic or slurred frames.”

Hynes laid out their process for the interviews once the logistics were in place:

We did our best to transfer our hotel room methodology to the Skype sessions by adhering to rules still available to us, despite the distance and lack of control over the space. We maintained the 10-minute limit, and we also completely exited the “space” of the call, with the three of us turning off our cameras and mics and walking away from our computers. This way, participants were left alone with their thoughts, confronting or embracing the isolation and acting accordingly. This has proven to be one of the crucial components of the experiment, and was important again for this film, if also a bit cruel — since we’d all been so alone in quarantine, dispersing for those ten minutes made for a thwarted connection of sorts.

The responses from the directors vary, though none of them answer “Is cinema becoming a dead language?” in the affirmative. The general sentiment is instead that cinema is evolving, and that the current social mode of forced isolation is both making these evolutions apparent and in some ways accelerating them. Many of them take the opportunity to experiment, perhaps venting some pent-up creativity. Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher turn the camera on a nearby cat. Lauren Domino cheekily holds up her phone as it plays “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. John Skoog films his session not in his home, but at a drive-in movie theater (such spaces have seen a resurgence thanks to COVID-19) playing The Invisible Man and Bad Boys for Life. Maya Daisy Hawke silently holds up various objects in her immediate space — an AirPod case, a tube of lipstick, etc. Turner Ross brings his young child into the room to consider the question. (The initial response: “What’s ‘cinema’?”)

When asked what they themselves think about the future of cinema, Reichert said:

Cecilia Aldarondo makes a really excellent point that I’ve thought about almost every day since we filmed her. Just as the pandemic is laying bare how intrinsically unjust so many systems we take for granted are, there is a possibility for us in the film world — which like a lot of work around art making, comes with a patina of privilege — to recognize the same. And to hopefully build back up better and more sustainably when we can.

Hynes responded,

I’ve been thinking about Cecilia’s words a lot over these weeks, and also about Ra’anan Alexandrowicz‘s submission, in which he flatly expresses loss over not being able to share his work with others and gather with others to discover his colleagues’ work at festivals — experiences that can’t be adequately replicated online. We can adapt, we will adapt, we are adapting to this situation, but doing so doesn’t prevent us from remembering what we’re missing, and what we want to reclaim as soon as we can.

Room H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 and the other Room H.264  films are available to stream on Vimeo through May 3. While the film is available for free, the Museum of the Moving Image appreciates any donation to help them continue to present such programming.

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