Jonathan Lethem Gets Bookish in Cinema Address

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Tommy Lau
Words on film: Jonathan Lethem
At last year's San Francisco International Film Festival, indie producer and invited speaker Christine Vachon embarrassed her hosts with a sloppy and unprepared "State of Cinema" report. To erase the lingering memory of that lowbrow disaster, organizers lured another New Yorker, best-selling novelist and professor Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude), to the big house at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas over the weekend to deliver the annual address. One could say the festival rode the elevator from street level to an upper ivory-tower floor, with appreciably better (though not-quite-scintillating) results.

Conveying a casual likability -- maybe it was the untucked shirt under the gray sportcoat, or the gray shoes with green laces -- Lethem acknowledged the performance requirements of his assignment by beginning with a five-minute "joke" and maintaining a high level of energy and enthusiasm throughout his 45-minute talk. But Lethem is a writer, not a speaker, which is to say that his litany of ideas, feints, parentheticals, and digressions would be better served by reading it on the page than by hearing it delivered. (The festival has posted a video the essay -- a more descriptive word than "speech" -- which you can see here.)

Leading off with a riff on "mumblecore" films (low-budget production, amateur actors), which he confessed to finding "arresting" and "which owe more to Andy Warhol's films than to John Cassavetes or the French New Wave," Lethem jumped into an appreciation of the Occupy movement's refusal to declare and codify its demands despite mainstream pressure. Unfortunately, his verbose analysis was so at odds with the movement's fundamental spontaneity and vitality as to briefly raise the specter of self-parody. Next up was a discussion of neoteny, a concept I wasn't familiar with (and still am not), notwithstanding Lethem's mention of Betty Boop.

Your correspondent doesn't consider himself a knee-jerk anti-intellectual, even when he can't grasp the points made by thinkers measurably smarter and deeper than he is. (Personal to Mr. Lethem: Visual references, such as citing a moment or a scene in a movie, are most helpful to an audience trying to follow the thread of philosophical or abstract concepts.) But for every opaque assertion, Lethem offered an insight that didn't seem especially revelatory, though one could imagine college undergrads being impressed.

To be sure, Lethem wasn't pompous, self-aggrandizing, or condescending. Nor did he succumb to the easy temptation to use his pulpit to cheap-shot a loathed trend or director or name-check a favorite. Lethem did make a point of decrying overly reverent, dead-on-arrival literary adaptations during the question-and-answer period, reluctantly citing The Shipping News. As for filmmakers who have or might option his novels, he declared, in one of the funniest lines of the afternoon, "I hope they tear its heart out and use one ventricle." (Lethem later confided that David Cronenberg is tackling his 1997 tome, As She Climbed Across the Table.)

It was difficult to identify a central theme in Lethem's talk, or to name a memorable takeaway. Nonetheless, Lethem's one-liner about new media reflects his general optimism about movies and culture: "Change is never as utopian or dystopian as we hope and fear."

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Sundance Kabuki Cinemas

1881 Post, San Francisco, CA

Category: Film

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