Oslo, August 31st
"Oslo, August 31"

I’ve seen quite a few of SFIFF's State of the Cinema lectures, the tenth in fest's series of inviting a “prominent thinker to discuss the intersecting worlds of contemporary cinema, culture, and society.” Highlights that spring to mind include the erudite sound designer and film editor Walter Murch, complete with Power Point presentation; the irrepressible and charming director/animator/voice actor Brad Bird; and Tilda Swinton, easily the most stylishly attired and poetically, delightfully incoherent.

Last year’s invitee, however, the respected and prolific indie producer Christine Vachon, came woefully underprepared – I was sitting close enough to see the meager collection of post-its on which she’d scrawled her thoughts, the sum of which seemed to be that since she’d just produced a successful miniseries for TV (Todd Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce”), it was now OK for movie producers to create content for other providers.

I shouldn’t have worried. Programmer Sean Uyehara, who introduces this year’s speaker, the prolific novelist Jonathan Lethem, mentions that Lethem was first invited to deliver the address a couple of years ago, so presumably he’s been thinking about what he’s going to say for quite some time.  Also, he’s now Disney Chair of Creative Writing at Pomona College (I was surprised to learn he’s left his iconic Brooklyn for sunny Southern Cal), so he knows his way around a lecture. Which he reads (more accurately, performs) from a densely-printed text.

He describes his talk as a plate-spinning act straight out of vaudeville, with each “plate” one of a few things he’s been thinking about in relation to the state of media. He celebrates the mumblecore films as an inadvertent documentary of our time, in which “late techno-capitalism has made infants of us all.” The Occupy movement is interesting precisely because it doesn’t make demands – its power as a movement is as a mirror, or a Rorschach blot – and has given capitalism back its name as a system, in that one can again be anti-capitalist.

Neoteny, wherein new species demonstrate traits of the infants of earlier species, reminds him of rock-and-roll coming from early jazz novelty numbers, and therefore he sees certain current film and media movements as preferring the demo track over the finished one, the rehearsal over the polished performance.  He points out that the threat of death from new media to old media is greatly exaggerated: radio wasn’t destroyed by movies, nor movies by television. (Stop the presses!)

He loses me with the idea of “true vs. the real,” including the difference between sponge listening versus obedient listening. (Sponge listening occurs when he overhears his 4 year old saying “that’s balderdash!” after hearing dad use the phrase.) On the whole, he wants to reassure us that the kids are all right, that his students (and his 2 and 4-year-old children) are still watching movies and reading novels, even if on all these wacky new-fangled devices.