Tom Vincent is the program manager for PIAF’s 2017 Lotterywest Festival Films. Born in Dorset, Vincent went to university at Liverpool – half-heartedly studying politics, preferring to trail the city’s DJ scene with mates. An image hardly unfitting for a bunch of lofty, rancid youths; but still in comic contrast to the shirted, contemplative man sipping his coffee before me. He made his return to university after living in Japan for three years, taking a Master’s in Cinema Studies. His specialty: the distribution and exhibition of film. From here Tom Vincent worked at what is now call the National Media Museum in the UK, programing for eight years until the southern hemisphere beckoned. Having never before visited Australia, Tom has lived in Perth for now over two years. This being his second time at programing the festival for Somerville and Joondalup, I wanted to ask the film-buff about the experience of curating films for a changing audience, the social potential of film and cinema, and trash.
RYAN SUCKLING: What were your university days like?
TOM VINCENT: In Liverpool, I was really disengaged with my course. I didn’t question or think very deeply about why I was there. The best thing – apart from some aspects of the course that I did enjoy, like political philosophy – was the DJ-ing I did around the city with the mates I lived with. That was really rewarding. In terms of film, my friends and I used to watch each other’s video collections, a lot of it was recorded off the TV. This was in the late 90s, when TV broadcasting still had a good commitment to international and independent cinema. You could record Jim Jarmusch movies for instance, and watch them again and again. I wasn’t going to the cinema very much; Liverpool didn’t have a strong independent cinema at the time. After Japan, I went back to university for master’s and was then completely immersed in cinema. I used that time to broaden out and explore pockets of film history, especially world cinema, that I felt I needed to see. It was all done with the idea that I would work in cultural cinema.
Were you watching a lot of Japanese cinema?
Not necessarily, but I had read some of the important books on Japanese cinema. There was a very important cultural commentator called Donald Richie, who became the leading writer on Japanese culture and cinema from the 1940s to the 2000s, up until his death. He was an American and lived in Japan from 1946. He met everybody culturally important to Japan, and he wrote the classic books on Japanese cinema in English. So by the time I got back to Nottingham, where I did my MA, I was keen to explore what he had written on. I wanted to understand how an English audience’s perception of Japanese culture might be affected by distribution, but that’s getting very technical. My wife’s Japanese, my kids are half-Japanese, and I’ve been back to Japan roughly every other year for the last 12 years, so I still have a very strong connection to Japan.
Can you distinguish between what makes a good film, and what makes a brilliant film?
I’m someone who’s very interested in the function or potential of film in relation to the public. When I think about cinema for work I tend to think of two things – whether the film has achieved what it set out to achieve on its own terms, and also whether what it’s set out to achieve is any good. For a film to be brilliant it would need to excel at both of those things. Also, I think the film would need to resonate deeply with the audience. The latter thing is not something that can be controlled, it’s dependent on where the film’s seen and by whom. For that reason, film don’t always stay brilliant. Something can be brilliant in 1978 and no longer brilliant in 1988, because it doesn’t mean what it once meant.
How do you think about audiences?
I think about audience constantly. I think about the audience that comes regularly, and I think about the audience that comes occasionally or in fact doesn’t come. I’m trying to choose a sequence of 21 feature films for committed audiences that want to be shown a range of new things, but also say to people who haven’t been that this film might be for you. I often find that when people come to Somerville and Joondalup for the first time, they really enjoy the experience of being there, it’s an evocative environment and your senses are heightened by being outdoors. There’s also an aspect to films that works very well in that context. It’s hard to articulate what it is, but certain films are better suited to indoor cinema. Some films that are really intimate, interior dramas that have a certain closeness to the cinematography, don’t come across very well outdoors.
Do you think that the programing signifies a particular cultural condition? How we might think about the self and society?
I can only reflect what individual artists want to bring to that. But I think any cultural or film festival worthy of the name would always seek to have more plurality. If you removed the less commercial cinema programing, if you were only left with the top 10 films of the year, the ones that make the most money; I think you’d have a really poor diet of cinema, as the range of representation and psychologies would be very narrow. I think it’s a given that PIAF broadens the diet, and offers a greater range of character and ideas about selves. At its best cinema is an opportunity to experience others, and that’s what PIAF is here for.
How do you think audiences are changing?
Cinema audiences are holding up, against expectations. Of course some film festivals do go, but I don’t think that this kind of institution is under any kind of threat, I think people are seeking curation more and more. It’s the paradox of abundance – being offered so many choices that don’t have a given hierarchy. Netflix or simply anywhere online – how does anyone choose what to look at or even how to think about something? I do think people are looking for advocates and people to represent certain programs to make a community. I find that audiences really do engage with the idea of a curated festival.
What’s your impression of Perth’s film culture?
In the case of Perth, PIAF is a big historical factor. Somerville’s been showing films since 1953. I find Perth audiences to be quite open to foreign language cinema. I would like there to be a little more range throughout the year in terms of Perth’s film culture. I don’t think Perth has quite enough institutions that are supporting film in its broadest sense. I would like Perth to have more of a what’s called repertory film culture, programing classics and older films for audiences. I think that’s an important part of any city’s film culture.
What are you watching at the moment?
I’m watching a TV show called Fishing with John. I’ve only recently become aware of it but I feel I should have known about it years ago. It was made for an American cable TV network in the 90s, hosted by the actor and jazz musician John Lurie. Every episode he invites one of his friends to go fishing with him. I’ve seen two episodes so far, the first with the director Jim Jarmusch, and the second with Tom Waits – two of my American cultural heroes. It’s everything – meditative, bizarre, boring, understated, and everyone’s slightly antagonistic. The voice over suggests that they’re having mystical adventures. It’s a woozy late night cultic classic thing that I’ve just stumbled across, and I’m a bit obsessed with it.
In the case of film, do you have guilty pleasures? Are you fond of trash?
I don’t really believe in the concept. I think Dirty Dancing is a fantastic film, as is House Party with the rappers Kid and Play. I love trashy cinema. Some of the filmmakers I’m most fascinated by make what you might call trash. The obvious ones being Paul Verhoeven, John Waters, and even Kenneth Anger – they all have seriously interesting trashy aesthetics. It’s not just about laughing about things because they’re strange or indulgent, I think it’s about finding truth in trashiness. They’re pushing something until it breaks, and when something breaks, it reveals something. Then there’s accidental trash, which can reveal other things. That’s the fascination with The Room, as it’s trash that doesn’t know it’s trash. For the first time I found it hysterically funny, for the second I didn’t like it at all.
Interview by Ryan Suckling
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 1