Coronavirus and New Forms of Cinematic Event

Still from Terminal USA

Curator's Note

Terminal USA (Jon Moritsugu, 1993)

The best-known accounts of twentieth-century cinephilia share something important: they are all set in large cities. Peter Wollen’s classic essay collection Paris Hollywood exemplifies its romantic cine-cosmopolitanism. This “old cinephilia” (as it is now being called) is marked by two important forms of privilege. First, easy access to a vast number and variety of films, typically in a metropolis; but also, the ability to experience them in the form of a special cinematic event: the theatrical screening.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the former privilege began to erode with the quick rise of home video and the expanding availability of films on VHS regardless of geographic location. The arrival of DVD and the Internet further eased barriers to access, although certain categories of work—such as experimental film and media—continued to be difficult to see outside of big cities. With the mass shutdown of theaters over the last few months, coronavirus has eliminated, albeit temporarily, the latter privilege.

Some of the most creative responses to our current moment have been those that, in the absence of the big-screen experience, are trying to refashion the very notion of a cinematic event. One such alternate conception can be seen in a program of 1990s Asian-American film and video, co-curated by Abby Sun and Keisha Knight, titled “My Sight is Lined with Visions.”

Viewed strictly in terms of exhibition—which here occurred via streaming—the series would appear to be low on “event-ness.” But the program’s design created a constellation of elements that transformed it into a significant and compelling event. For one, the series was tied to a specific moment—Asian/Pacific Heritage Month in the US—while also responding to the rise in anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. Further, as the curators explain, the impulse behind the series was sharply focused: to showcase overlooked Asian-American films of the past in a way that belies the “representational progress” narrative around commercial successes such as Crazy Rich Asians. A space was marked out for conversation and thought: Fresh essays were commissioned by Asian or Asian-American writers, and webinars allowed audiences to interact with the directors.

Finally, the series used a direct-to-audience model that was fair to creators. 50% of ticket revenues went to the filmmakers (after administrative costs), and a two-tiered pricing scheme accommodated viewers of varying economic means. The result was an imaginative cinematic event with a dual focus—characteristic of the “new cinephilia”—on both aesthetics and politics/justice.

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