Creating Passionate Audiences
“I am passionate about everything in my life—first and foremost, passionate about ideas. And that’s a dangerous person to be in this society, not just because I am a woman, but because it’s such a fundamentally anti-intellectual, anti-critical thinking society. I don’t think we can act like it’s so great for men to be critical thinkers either. This society doesn’t want anybody to be a critical thinker.”
bell hooks “What’s Passion Got to Do With It: An Interview With Marie-France Alderman”
I only just this year discovered yet another reason to love and be inspired by bell hooks as one of my favorite critical thinkers and writer: not only does she position herself as not solely an intellectual but an artist, she also tracks her passion for movies back to independent filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Trinh T Minh-Ha. I found that she shared a love for independent film, a form of representation often partitioned off from other forms of political work and position as solely self-indulgent elitism, and that she saw it as central to her political understanding of the world. It is rare that I find people that create such a broad path for those that follow them, but bell hooks provides this for so many of us seeking a lifetime of critical thinking and constantly seeks to position this idea of opening up new and expansive possibilities for living and representation as one of the most important feminist ideas.
In looking for books to read alongside my internship at the EPFC, I stumbled upon her collection of essays Reel to Real and jumped for joy (and I know I don’t mean figuratively). The quote above is from one of the essays compiled in it. I tried desperately to remember where I had read it because I wanted to pull it out for my earlier post on the passionlessness of the academy. Another essay, “Back to the Avant-Garde,” resonated heavily with the work I’ve been taking part in at the EPFC. In it hooks talks about the responses black audiences initially had to Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. She describe the situation:
“[t]o a grave extent the film had to be positioned aesthetically before many viewers could see and appreciate it on its own terms. When viewers came looking for conventional cinema and did not find it, many were disappointed and enraged.”
As an artist invested people who make the kind of work that often gets designated as inaccessible, difficult, alienating, elitist, it is extremely high on my priority to find ways to reposition art in ways that broaden the possible audiences or shift the potential audience. Hooks identifies as the main barrier to the audiences she watched film with enjoying it as seeming to be the expectations built into the setting they watched the film in. Marketing campaigns are essential to film industry as currently constructed and they always position films as unimaginatively as possible (not to say that they aren’t imaginative in how they frame the product, but never in service of the imagination of the filmmaker- on this note check out the fascinating New Yorker article on this tool from Lion’s Gate films). In the recent La Weekly profile of Paolo he addresses this issue, but in framing the possibilities:
“I realized people were hungry for film. Not just in the two-hour-pay-twelve-dollar multiplex scenario, but also the funky experimental film on the side of an RV in Idaho. Not everyone loved it. The old guys sipping beers out of their cozies would say, ‘I don’t get it. This stuff’s crap but I like what you’re doing, kid.’ It created an interesting dialogue. That experience led to what I’m doing now.”
He’s talking about his experience traveling the country projecting his own experimental works wherever he could. I fervently believe in the potential to build on the interactions where the audience didn’t like what he showed them, but liked the fact that he was showing it to them in the first place. To like experimental film, or any form of art is not to like or understand everything that comes before you, but to not write off a whole medium or genre as a result. I think that people appreciate when they are given opportunities to be welcomed into and when they have an ownership of the spaces in which they encounter art.
I think these kind of arguments tend to get easily dismissed when they are discussed in middle class settings, partly I would say due to the fact that for most people art is positioned as a mechanism for obtaining social capital solely and so it can even be viewed hostilely as an obligation people resented but pursued in order to be classified as culture. In their minds art is not a central part of community (in fact US capital often encourages us to increasingly dis-identify with any community as we gain more financial privilege). There are so few public locations that cater to working class and people of color communities in any way, especially ones devoted to promoting creativity. We are a culture deathly afraid of a mixed public sphere that is not accidental, but intentional.
To sit in the EPFC on a typical afternoon is to encounter a wide range of people who just wander in because the building is weird, there are cameras of all shapes, sizes and ages hanging around. It is positioned as a community center, so this kind of interaction is encouraged in a way that is not the case for most galleries. Community groups also come in to use the space on different nights of the week and most of the events put on by the EPFC are free. I can’t speak for how fully realized the goal of providing a feeling of ownership in the center throughout Echo Park, but I at least know that the local youth definitely do as they are an integral part of the center.
The biggest hopeful note for the future of truly imaginative art being appreciated in the future came from a conversation with a fellow TA who started as a student of EPFC. She was describing documentary as the most interesting type of film and about how many ways a documentarian can creatively approach zir subject. She articulated documentaries as how I feel like they should be, but in a way that I feel like most of us aren’t used to encountering. When I told her that I often find documentaries to be frustratingly unimaginative as a genre, she admitted that she felt that way about the way they are treated within the mainstream, but that her frame of reference are the films she made at the EPFC and the films/filmmakers first seen there.