The State of Cinema (M. Ciment)

For keeps : the online page disappeared. At the 46th San Francisco International Film Festival (2003)

Michel Ciment: The State of Cinema

The State of Cinema address, delivered by guest programmer Michel Ciment at the 46th San Francisco International Film Festival

If the title of this address sounds portentous, I will immediately downplay it by stressing that my speech will express a very subjective viewpoint nourished by my 40- year-old involvement in film criticism, festival attendance and of course, reading experts and speaking with them. One of the striking features of the state of cinema at any time is to see how the atlas of cinema is ever changing. If we look at the map of the film world, we will see that the red zone of intense creativity, the gray zones of intermittent presence and the white zones of desertification have witnessed enormous variations if we look at them in the ‘60s, for instance, or today. Forty years ago Eastern European countries, Italy, later Germany, offered a host of talented directors and some of the major artists in the world: Tarkovsky, Wajda, Skolimowski, Makavejev, Jancsó, Forman, Passer, Chytilova, Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Rosi, Pasolini, Wenders, Herzog, Fassbinder and so many others. Today these countries have stopped playing a significant role even if interesting films are still being produced there.

On the map we see the appearance of new cinematographic territories, which had attracted almost no attention 40 years ago such as Australia, Iran, Taiwan, China, South Korea, or Hong Kong. The focus on them has replaced the one on Quebec, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, or Brazil. This is, to be sure, somewhat unfair when the concentration of interest on some is at the expense of others. We–and particularly the critics–should be on the lookout and pay attention to whomever reveals a potential talent and not ignore it because his country is not in fashion. More than ever it is the film and not the credits that deserve attention. Recently and unexpectedly Diego Lerman, Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Trapero, Carlos Sorín and others have revealed a new wave in Argentinian cinema. Without excluding the factor of snobbism one must acknowledge that the shift in cinematographic geopolitics corresponds to an observable reality. Directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Im Kwon-Taek, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wong Kar Wai have put Asia on the map and experiment fruitfully in film style.

There is something mysterious about the comatose state into which an art form falls all of a sudden. Why did great painting disappear from Russia during four centuries, and music from England (except for German immigrant composers) for more than 200 years? One thing is sure for cinema: When a country has been under a totalitarian regime and starts to breathe again, even within certain limits, the artistic flowering is almost immediate. This is what happened in Eastern Europe with the thaw in the Communist regime during the late ‘50s and ‘60s. This is what happens today in Iran, South Korea, Taiwan and Argentina. The economic factor plays also a major role. When the state stopped being involved in film production as it occurred in Eastern Europe after 1990, the industry collapsed.

Only two countries have remained ever present–artistically speaking--–in the long history of cinema, not knowing any period of eclipse as it happened to every other national industry. The American and the French cinema in fact offer, as in so many other issues concerning our two countries, two almost opposite points of view. The American cinema believes totally in the market, in the strength of the liberal economy, and it has won over audiences all around the world thanks sometimes due to the quality of its performers and directors, and always due to its technical proficiency and recently its mastery of special effects. The French cinema for better and for worse has maintained the idea of director as an auteur (with the filmmaker’s right to final cut) and has tried to survive the roller coaster of Hollywood films by protecting its industry. During the last 45 years, a tax of little more than ten percent is being levied on every ticket, and the money is being reinvested in French films. Thus a film is not considered an industrial product but rather a part of the culture of the nation, and as such, should not be submitted to the same economic laws that rule subsidies for wheat or cars. This position—called the cultural exception—has been fought against strongly by the American negotiators during the GAAT discussions, but France, with the support of Germany, Italy and Spain, has been able to maintain its singularity which explains partly the resistance of its cinema and its popularity (30-40 percent of the French audience sees French films). It has thus been able to produce or co-produce foreign directors who had difficulties being financed exclusively by their own countries: David Lynch, Angelopoulos, Almodóvar, Kaurismaki, Lars von Trier, Moretti, Wong Kar Wai, Tsai Ming Liang, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Kiarostami, Pintilie and many central Asian or African directors.

Some countries like South Korea are following the French example to support their most ambitious directors but other countries with a weaker spirit or less possibility of resistance abandon any kind of protection under the pressures of Hollywood interests and American diplomacy. We are here at the center of the nature of cinema which is both an art and an industry, and which is nourished by the tensions between the aesthetics and the economics. As the great art theoretician Erwin Panofsky said, “There are two dangers for the artist: if he caters too much to the audience, he may end up as a prostitute, but if he shuts himself in an ivory tower, he will remain a virgin.” Which explains why there are too many prostitutes in Hollywood and too many virgins along the Seine River.

The great lesson of the Hollywood of the past was its ability to produce films that could appeal to a great variety of spectators. You could recommend a Hitchcock or a Wilder, a Kazan or a Minnelli, to a farmer or to a professor, to a worker or a doctor. As André Gide said watching a Chaplin movie, “What a thrill to be in tune with the responses of a mass audience.” This was also true of Kurosawa, Renoir, Visconti, Bergman or Lean. It seems that in the present state of the cinema this is less and less true. There have been, of course, glorious exceptions, particularly in Hollywood with Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick or Altman, to name but a few, but it seems that more and more a dichotomy prevails between great cinema stylists with a limited audience–the regulars of film festivals- and mindless escapist movies with eye–boggling visuals, deafening sounds, and limited substance.

The popular success of an original artist–take for example, Pedro Almodóvar–is a comfort for those who hope that the best of cinema is not going to follow the path of contemporary painting with its limited public and whose seal of approval is applied by a small group of art dealers, critics and curators. If the current state of Hollywood cinema worries me, I am not one of those who bemoan American films as an opiate of the people and a vapid form of creation. It has always been looked down upon–even in its golden years–and there are enough talents today, more than anywhere in the world: Altman, Scorsese, Malick, Spielberg, De Palma, Eastwood, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Michael Mann, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, Tim Burton, Tarantino, Oliver Stone, Philip Kaufman, James Cameron, John Carpenter, Tod Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Larry Clark, John Sayles, Todd Haynes, Lodge Kerrigan, Milos Forman, to prove its creativity. However, in the last two decades, a tendency has surfaced in the industry to produce fragmentary sounds and images in a cumulative way and in a manner very much akin to the world of videogames. The development of digital imagery has made even more potent and possible this new relationship to space, to time, to our body, a kind of derealization of the world, of a desensitization of our feelings which make us less aware of the reality around us. Reality indeed has become like a film. “Vietnam, the movie,” announced sardonically and prophetically one character in Full Metal Jacket. This delicate balance between image and idea, between our sense and our intellect which has been at the core of the great masters of the cinema from Lang to Kubrick, from Hawks to Rossellini, from Walsh to Resnais, from Dreyer to Mizoguchi, seems to have been tipped in so many films aimed at a young audience–which is the future–in favor of a flux of lights and colors without constraint, a cinema ruled exclusively by pulse and energy without the slightest critical distance. In France Luc Besson’s films or Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible testify to this irresponsible trend.

Geoffrey King, in his book New Hollywood Cinema, has commented on this impatience of the audience by measuring the duration of a shot in a classical Hollywood film and in a contemporary one. Where it lasted 7.85 seconds in Spartacus, it was only 3.36 seconds long in Gladiator, 8.72 seconds in The Fall of the Roman Empire and 2.07 seconds in Armageddon.

Facing this lack of patience and themselves made impatient by the bombardment of sound and image to which they are submitted as TV or cinema spectators, a number of directors have reacted by a cinema of slowness, of contemplation, as if they wanted to live again the sensuous experience of a moment revealed in its authenticity. Angelopoulos in Greece, Nuri Bilge Ceylan in Turkey, de Oliveira and Monteiro (who died a few weeks ago) in Portugal, Béla Tarr in Hungary, Abbas Kiarostami in Iran, Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taiwan, Philippe Garrel and Bruno Dumont in France, Souleymane Cissé and Idrissa Ouedraogo in Africa, Sharunas Bartas in the Baltic state, Aleksandr Sokurov in Russia, and several directors in Central Asia have been proponents in recent years of a resistance to the fetishism of technology. Kubrick, himself a master of technology, has produced antidote films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut with their provocative slowness.

If the Hollywood industry—with its market studies, sneak previews, belief in sequels and series—sees the audience at its lowest common denominator as its primary target (“If you run after the audience, you will only see its ass,” Max Ophuls used to say) it would be wrong to believe that European cinema is not prone to the same commercial self-censorship. Its financing is so closely indebted to TV that the small screen imposes its criteria–particularly for primetime viewing–to greenlight a script to be co-produced. It is probable that some of the great European films of the ‘60s: 8 1/2; Pierrot le Fou; Au Hasard, Balthazar; Viridiana; Persona; The Servant; l’Avventura; Salvatore Giuliano; Last Year at Marienbad; Shoot the Piano Player, would not have a chance to obtain the approval of today’s TV committees. The result is that these aforementioned films are still, 40 years later, bolder in their narrative structure, more complex in their layers of meaning, more original visually than the best films of today which, if at times excellent, seem tame and so rarely experimental, avoiding controversial issues or stylistic challenges.

One of the ways to bypass the economic constraints and to regain a freedom lost in more and more cumbersome productions has been the use of DV cameras and of high definition. The Danish Dogma may have been a forerunner of this tendency. However, its chart has always seemed to me more like a publicity stunt than a real aesthetic manifesto not only because of the foolishness of some of its rules (no static camera, no scenes set in the past, no artificial lighting) but because if an artist can (and maybe) should set rules for himself, he can’t impose rules on others. Dogma nevertheless gave probably to some (Vinterberg) the courage and the possibility to express themselves. DV on the whole will allow a number of directors, particularly in the poorer parts of the world, to direct again, or for the first time, to innovate at low cost or to deal with urgent social and political issues. But again, one should not fetishize this new technology whose limitations also exist. A true artist will always know how to choose his tool according to his project. It is at the other end of the chain that the digital technique has offered its most revolutionary instrument: the DVD. It has already created a new relationship between the audience and the film, a new way of teaching cinema and multiple possibilities of restoration and rediscovery. The DVD has given a new life to the past of the cinema, and consequently is changing its present state. It also raises some problems. With its bonuses the uniqueness of the film is put in question. If a living director decides to change the editing of one of his films (like Coppola with Apocalypse Redux), he is of course permitted to do so. But to go back to an original editing say La Ronde by Ophuls, A Star Is Born by Cukor, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Kubrick, which had been modified subsequently by its director, now dead, who is entitled to do so? Finally, the DVD may allow a director to circulate within his own film and to impinge on its integrity. Thus Agnés Varda has interviewed again, two years later, some of the people she had already met for Les Glaneurs Et La Glaneuse. In the DVD of that film, every time one of the protagonists appears you may click and his new intervention is inserted in the flow of the film, which later resumes its course. In doing so, Varda modifies her original film and elaborates a work in progress.

As I said earlier, the DVD opens new ways to the past without which there is no future. One day Truffaut said, “We have to realize that we the directors, we are soon going to be judged by critics who have never heard of Murnau.” Truffaut, like the other New Wave directors, knew Murnau of course when he was a critic and it helped him to be behind the camera. One becomes a writer by reading, a musician by listening, an artist by looking at a painting, and a director by watching films. May the choice of DVD be varied enough to allow us to go back to the classics. The state of cinema will be better if in the future filmmakers realize that in order to make a stylistic revolution, you need to know the tradition. That is the lesson of Stravinsky, Joyce, Picasso and Eisenstein. It should be the lesson of film schools.

There is maybe one last lesson to be learned from the present state of cinema. It seems that the Lumière path (the recording of reality) and the Méliès path (the animation process) have never been so trodden. With the development of TV, thousands of channels are pouring out images of the world. This reality effect has had its influence on fiction film, which centers more and more on the details of everyday life. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the Méliès syndrome of special effects and totally artificial worlds. The documentary film (Lumière tradition) and the animation film (Méliès tradition), which for a long time had their specific programs, are now integrated into mainstream cinema and festival competition. Shrek won a prize in Cannes in 2001, and a year later, so did Bowling for Columbine. Spirited Away by Miyazaki won a Golden Bear last year in Berlin, and one of the highlights of Cannes this year will be the screening of The Triplets of Belleville, an animation feature from France.

What is most missing today is the fusion of Méliès and Lumière, the lesson of the great masters of the past–Renoir, Mizogushi, Fellini, Kubrick, Lang, Bresson, Bergman, Buñuel, Tarkovsky, Welles and Ford–who blended the artificial and the real, creating through stylization a heightened realism, sometimes a surrealism, always a synthetic vision of the world. This Promethean endeavor was nourished by an intense curiosity for all the arts (painting, literature, music, architecture) by a philosophical understanding of the world and an awareness of the political and social issues of the day. It is not surprising perhaps that a number of the emerging new talents that have set themselves those standards (a Hou Hsiao-hsien, a Kiarostami) come from the East: They have a passion for the media, a high cultural education, a freshness of approach and are anything but blasé.

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