Jeffrey's underground cinemas
I hope you are doing well, of course.
This is one of the saddest announcements since I started the cinemas, because all the screenings have been cancelled by government orders. I hear people panicking, and others are suggesting good things that might come out of this whole process. Maybe we will all read more and everyone will become reflective and enlightened. What I’m particularly concerned about is the risk of people becoming even more isolated and depressed than they are now. Most of the locations I work with belong to communities or tightly-knit groups of volunteers. These spaces have been working really hard for decades to resist isolation and build up a sense of togetherness. The new situation is hitting their core values hard, and many of them wanted to stay open: places ranging from a small concert venue like De Nieuwe Anita to a big institution like the Goethe. Like me, despite the dire situation, they wanted to contribute in the fight against social isolation. The underground cinemas have been for decades a place where people could dream together, regardless of age and social belonging. It horrifies me to imagine all those people locked away all alone watching their little screens and nothing more. And it’s the old people who are going to be hit the hardest with fear and loneliness. I also worry what this city of Amsterdam will look like after the dust settles. Already many small places are being driven out of business by the economic lockdown.
I could write a lot more, but I prefer to share some words together with you about my last screening, which happened in Paris last Saturday in the Latin Quarter, the wonderful occupied La Clef cinema which I mentioned in earlier newsletters.
The movie I screened at La clef was Derek Jarman’s Glitterbug. It was his last film, and since Jarman had the HIV virus, he basically edited it on his deathbed. He was 52 years old. It is a nonverbal film, composed only of flickering images with original music by Brian Eno. It’s a compilation of super-8 home movie footage Derek shot over the span of two decades.
It is a dreamy film, especially with the image-memories of lovers and friends, many of whom would die of the same illness as he did. So the film has a bittersweet edge to it. In the La clef cinema on Saturday night, we watched how people were touching each other tenderly (in ways that are now prohibited) and we felt Derek Jarman’s love flowing through his camera lens. We could also see the love of his friends, including Tilda Swinton, towards him. It was almost shocking.
Watching this movie was a poignant experience at this moment because of course it had the theme of a virus, but in the end, despite even death, love and community won. In the early evening, the cinema collective and several others had long conversations about the current situation. People cooked food, and the discussions were about really learning, not pushing an agenda. After the screening the conversations continued the heart-wrenching glow of Jarman’s intimate vision. These discussions were almost magical, and one of the most profound experiences of my life. It confirmed to me that what we need is a sense of community, not hoarding, madness and fear.
We had moved the programme from Sunday to Saturday because of rumours that the borders could close. The next day, I followed Cc’s simple instructions to get back home early: “Just jump onto any random train with your Monday ticket, dog.” And for once, it worked. I am deeply moved by the whole experience.
In any case, stay tuned, I’m planning to programme all the movies that were cancelled as soon as we open up again. Until then, all I can say is…. good luck!
PS: Cahiers du Cinéma – The End While I was at La clef cinema on Friday night a special event was unfolding. On stage were some of the journalists of the legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma that has been around since 1951. Recently almost the entire staff of editors and journalists quit in masse because a group of bankers, tech entrepreneurs and commercial film producers bought the magazine a month before, and wanted to turn it into something more ‘chic’ and entertaining, and limit its reviews to French art house cinema. Since its birth the magazine was always uncompromising, and covered all different kinds of international cinema. Among its writers were the French New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut. It was fantastic that this venue, an occupied cinema, was chosen to conduct a debate and discussion with the journalists about what had really happened. The audience was fierce and the engagement was absolutely thrilling.
This Quiet Earth
So for the last month, we have been locked inside our little boxes with our gadgets, slowly letting the void sink in. We are now living in the wreckage of reckless globalization… with all the fragility, dependency, and confusion it produced. Many turn to the internet for inspiration. However when I look online, I mostly find a battlefield of contradictory information… with facts ricocheting in every direction. In the end, the most interesting thing I find is watching all the journalists who were once in glamorous newsrooms, now broadcasting from their laptops, without make-up, in their drab apartments. Bam! So many illusions instantly blown away!
Once this storm hit, it seemed to me that the wholesale scramble to the internet was almost as short-sighted as the run on toilet paper. Everyone jumped on the online bandwagon, from sex workers in the red light district to the Eye film institution. That’s all we need, I thought to myself, everyone becoming even more dependent on these technologies that have pulverized to smithereens our sense of community for the last decades. To see everybody embracing these gadgets, used for surveillance and manipulating opinion, as our savior in this dilemma is beyond the pale. As a friend recently reflected about the lockdown “My entire world has been reduced to a tiny screen.”
And when I meet people in real-life parks or on the street during this deluge, many seem stunned by the numbing effects of having spent too much time on these abstract technologies – they are often vapid, nervous, and a little lifeless. In this current digitized situation, people won’t die as much from a virus as they will wither like flowers without water. “Not with a bang but a whimper.” They will just dry up and turn to dust. You will be able to puff and blow them away. You can pump all the virtual water you want into that flower – if the water isn’t wet it won’t do a thing. What I am talking about here is culture, and our inner lives.
The art critic John Berger once wrote “original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is.” He goes on to say that a painting, built of brushstrokes, textures and layers, is more still than a reproduction of the same work. In a way, these days when our routines have been derailed, feel closer to the realm of a painting. This standstill can allow sensuality to flow into our lives again.
Those who have been coming to the cinemas for awhile know they are based a kind of visceral fire, on flesh and blood ideas. This is something that can never be translated to an internet screen. As Marshall Mcluhan famously put it: the medium is the message. Many people have requested for me to put my intros online, and I thought about it for awhile. I concluded the only reason for me to put my intros online would be to show how shockingly pointless such an option is, and how it is contrary to everything my cinemas are about. Sure, for the first few seconds it might be ‘exciting’ to see Jeffrey in a little box, but soon the chuckles would fall flat and it would start droning away into dullness.
Ticket of No Return
For me, this is a special opportunity. Everything is morphing at the moment, and I always feel it’s best to hit when the iron is hot. Why wait until things have crystallized again? It’s better to strike now, when everything is fluid and open. I have always believed in culture as a prime mover. Maybe it is because I experienced the 1960s as a kid, and saw that people who fought for change would have gotten nowhere without all the poetry of music, art and cinema to help ignite the spark. If you get the culture right, everything else just falls into place. At this moment the marketplace is temporarily smashed, so I would love to see artists derail and follow their own Nadja, their own vision, again. We need wildcat art. You would have to be blind not to see the glaring opportunities at this moment. We have to stop pushing the easy button, and choose for something more thrilling.
In any case, the last thing we should wish for is that things go back to ‘normal’, the exact place that brought us here. Recent studies have concluded that we now have become the ‘loneliest society in human history’. This is the time we have been given to change that.
Some people tell me that this feels like a movie – for me it feels like things are finally getting real again.
Keep safe, and let your imagination soar,