Our new contemporary film series invites guest curators to blur the lines between visual art and cinema. Guest curators select films that will be screened free onsite at MCA.
Daniel Kasman, Director of Content at MUBI and film curator for August, discussed golden era rom-coms, Hong Sang-soo and the future of comedy in art cinema with James Vaughan.
Danny, many of our readers might not be aware of MUBI. Could you tell us about it?
MUBI is a curated online cinema. Founded in 2007, our goal has been to bring to audiences around the world the best movies. So many films slip by the wayside or get overwhelmed by the morass of mediocre mainstream cinema culture that it inspired us to start a streaming service that carefully chooses each and every film, passionately advocates for them, and connects them to audiences spread across the globe. We particularly specialise in independent films, festival award winners, and classics. If you’re fed up trying to find a good movie at the multiplex or online, MUBI makes it easy for you to find something really special.
You founded MUBI’s Notebook, a daily international film publication, could you tell us how this came about, and how Notebook has grown since then?
It was always our vision since day one to accompany the films we’re showing on MUBI with editorial coverage of film culture. That way, we bring our audiences not just the movies but a greater, more enriching experience: news, festival coverage, reviews, interviews and more, capturing the conversation around film of the moment. We want to ensure that watching films on MUBI isn’t like going to a store and purchasing something to watch. Film is a culture, one we celebrate and support. So reporting from the Cannes Film Festival, analysing a movie playing on the platform, and interviewing an up-and-coming director are all part of the cinematic environment we’ve built at MUBI.
Have you seen any films in the last year which have changed the way you see the world? The way you see cinema?
Too many, perhaps! As I get older, I’ve tended to see less films—but get more out of them. Of the newer ones, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor stands out for its placid, warm surface of easeful, compassionate humanism, beneath which lurks the dark pain of Thailand’s repressive politics. Taking place in a clinic treating soldiers mysteriously afflicted by a sleeping sickness, it simply, delicately yet richly suggests the world before our eyes is only one of many planes of reality, of history, of splendour, sorrow, and poetry that exist. To choose only one more, and quite a different one, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has resurrected a 1930 feature (missing an entire reel of film!) of Hollywood studio director Leo McCarey. With the tantalising title of Part Time Wife, happening upon this film about a quarrelling couple and their proclivities both towards golf (she expert, he inept but trying) and a young, orphaned Irish caddy turned upside down my whole sense of romantic comedy. An ever popular genre, its cinematic origins seem to go further back in history, and as we go along with it we discover new pleasures and pitfalls of love through the ages.
You have curated four films by master Korean structuralist and comic observer of human fallibility, Hong Sang-Soo, for whom I have to say I have a knee-weakening obsession. What is it about Hong’s cinema that is so endlessly attractive to his devotees, do you think?
Glad to find another Hongian! His appeal lays, I think, in a very alluring view of our lives: that life’s surface—our quotidian activities, rendezvous with friends, romances, and bouts of drinking—is intimately and mysteriously arranged in patterns that suggest but never quite conclude a greater meaning can be found through chance, coincidences, and repetitions.
Maren Ade’s frequently uproarious Toni Erdmann and Jim Jarmusch’s humour-inflected Paterson (both of which played to sell out sessions at this year’s Sydney Film Festival) were, as you covered on Notebook, two of the major critical hits at Cannes in 2016. Do you think this is part of a broader resurgence of comedy in art cinema? What other directors working with humour should we be keeping an eye on over the next few years?
Though I suspect not, I can only hope! Cinema has such a great capacity for humour, and there’s no reason it needs to be relegated only to mainstream movies. This is one (of many) reasons I love the movies of Hong Sang-soo: they are very funny. And it is quite rare, in the too often over-serious and austere or portenous world of art cinema, that a “foreign film” is funny. Regarding other funny filmmakers, though hardly young I will continue to argue for the always-funny and always-youthful cinema of French New Wave filmmaker Luc Moullet, marginalized for many reasons but also perhaps because unlike, say, Godard, he is so often working comically. One of Moullet’s acolytes, a young New York filmmaker, Ted Fendt, is also dedicated to the kind of lovingly low-key humour both Moullet and Hong are known for. I’m also quite a fan of some of the truly bizarre art comedies coming out of Greece, such as the films by Athina Rachel Tsangari and Yorgos Lanthimos, who recently made his English language debut with The Lobster.
Questions about how cinema will be produced, distributed, and viewed by audiences into the future continue to provoke speculation and hand-wringing from cinephiles and stakeholders alike. In this respect, MUBI has been such a positive development. Do you have views on where film distribution and exhibition is heading next?
The ground is certainly shifting under cinema’s feet and it is very difficult to predict the future. The online space, previously considered the end of the line for a film’s lifespan (which begins at a festival, then hopefully moves to conventional theatrical distribution, then DVD and Blu-ray, and finally online distribution), will continue to ascend, as it has done in recent years, to become nearly as viable a place to premiere a movie as in a physical cinema. Films will continue to be made—mostly digitally—screened and seen, though what we consider a film or cinema in general will certainly morph under these contexts. Once most people stop shooting on film, and most venues stop showing celluloid, with the digital presentation in cinemas being not dissimilar from what a consumer can enjoy at home, the line between “a movie” streamed at home and a “show” or…who knows what, blurs tremendously. What’s most important is to ensure the audience is aware, interested, and has access to the most exciting moving image work—whatever form that work takes, and whatever method “access” implies. This is certainly our goal at MUBI.
In an autobiographical film of your life: who would direct it? Who would play you?
Is it too obvious to say Hong Sang-soo? But it’s true, there’s something about the utterly normal modesty of this director’s films, yet the way their characters and stories are cleverly, subtly twisted through layers of irony and games of chance that I find very appealing. They are also quite funny, if in a self-deprecating way, and you must have comedy! To deepen the irony and (hopefully) increase the humour, only I could play myself, making an utter fool of the subject, but for Hong that’s undoubtedly the point.
When you’re in the mood to have your spirits lifted and want to watch something classic, what filmmakers do you turn to?
The golden studio era of Hollywood, always. Films by William A. Wellman, Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Lubitsch, Raoul Walsh, Henry King, John Ford, Hitchcock: it’s an inexhaustible epoch of cinema at its height as a popular art.
If you weren’t working with cinema, what would you be doing?
Cooking! The only thing I love more than a good movie is making a good meal and sharing it with friends. It achieves a level of interactivity and sensual connection that cinema can only aspire to.
Daniel Kasman is the Director of Content of curated online cinema MUBI and the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of MUBI’s daily, international film publication the Notebook.