The Future of Film

In October 2003, a British film director named Peter Greenaway gave a lecture at the Utrecht Film Festival entitled “Cinema is Dead.” So what? Lecturers are expected to come up with snappy and provocative titles for their lectures, and it wasn’t the first time those words had been spoken. Yet his comments were picked up by the British press, and The Guardian newspaper asked me to write an article about what Greenaway had said.

Greenaway is the director of THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT (UK, 1982), THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (UK, 1989) and numerous other films. He is, or was, regarded by some European critics as Britain’s most important filmmaker.  He is prolific and makes unusual films. For some reason he was detested by another British filmmaker, Alan Parker, who was once the chairman of the now-defunct Film Council, and made a television show entitled “How to Make A Peter Greenaway Film” which ridiculed the other director’s work.

Greenaway makes “art” films, or what we might call experimental narratives; Parker makes big-budget movies for Hollywood studios. I am agnostic regarding the Greenaway films I’ve seen. They were beautifully-photographed and designed, but it wasn’t clear to me what they were about. Parker’s work, on the other hand, is straightforward mainstream Monoform.

So when Greenaway speaks, even if he says “the Cinema is dead!” I’m willing to listen. His Utrecht argument is that the introduction of the remote control has killed the cinema, which “as our fathers and forefathers knew it was a passive, elitist medium.”  He observes: “rows and rows of people sitting still (and who in any other human occupation sits still for 120 minutes?) all looking in on one direction (the world is all around you – not just in front of us).”

What does he mean when he calls film an elitist medium? Certainly the process by which films come to be made is often elitist, and results in a condescending choice of subject matter: witness Hollywood’s current focus on mega-budget, comic-book superhero films. But what is wrong with a large group of people sitting in a dark theatre all facing the same way?  Sitting still in rows for two hours at a time is a thing that many, many people like to do: it is the way they watch plays, attend concerts, and see sporting events.

People do this voluntarily. Unless it is raining heavily, it is demonstrably more fun to attend a live gig or a decent stage production or (I am told) a football match, than to watch it on TV, alone.

There are even professions which involve a lot of passive sitting down, including the highway patrolman and the repo man: they remain engaged and creative in spite of all that sitting. Even a film director may sit down, in the editing room, or in a rare moment of inactivity on set. He or she may appear supine, but I can from personal experience attest that the director’s mind is a hotbed of activity, in a frenzy of creative energy, often for periods of longer than two hours.

Greenaway exhorted the Utrechters to “rid cinema of the four tyrannies of text, the frame, actors and the camera.”

It is certainly possible to make a great film without a text or actors. Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQATSI is such a film. Commercial feature films are often less good than they could be, due to a reliance on formulaic scripts and over-rated movie stars. On the other hand, a great script and great actors are likely to result in a great film. I’m not so sure what Greenaway meant about the tyranny of frames and cameras.  Every art work has parameters, and every art form has tools, and if you get rid of frames and cameras you just move into another area – performance art, or curatorship – rather than bury film.

Greenaway’s conclusion was strongly-made and sensible. The stranglehold of the distributors, he said, was close to killing the cinema, polluting potentially-splendid public spaces with repetitive, corporate genre pictures. Greenaway wanted to “break the monopolies” which was and is a worthy aim – and not something an audience would ever hear from his nemesis, Parker.

Greenaway’s alternatives to conventional distribution were DVD and the Internet. His TULSE LUPER SUITCASE films (2003 and 2004) had interactive elements which the viewer accessed via an optical disk or the web.

What Greenaway was talking about – and it is important – was the way the next generation will look at films. In the twelve years since he made his speech, very little has changed. Another fad for 3D movies came, and went away. Movies are more likely to be shot on video now. Filmmakers argue over the virtues of film versus digital. But in terms of content, a “new form” of cinema has yet to occur.

Just because it hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it won’t. Virtual reality headsets allow a player to be immersed in the environment of a game, to move through space and have an impact on their surroundings. For that reason it’s hard to imagine multiple headset users sharing the same space — unless, of course, they were all participating in the same game.

Is this what Greenaway meant as an alternative to “rows and rows of people sitting still”? Is interactivity – choices, options as to where the story goes – the future of narrative film?

Back in 1995, Dogme 95, a collective of film directors founded in Copenhagen, came up with a manifesto which opposed dramatic predictability, special effects, actors wearing make-up, and the Auteur Theory. Lars Von Trier, Tomas Winterberg and others signed up to the following “Vow of Chastity”:

1. All shooting must be done on location, with all props found on site.
2. Sound must never be produced apart from the images, or vice versa (including music).
3.The camera must be hand-held.
4.The film must be in colour, with no special lighting.
5. Optical work (i.e. post-production visual effects) and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action such as murder, weapons, etc.
7. The film must take place here and now.
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.
10. The director must not be credited (there is no auteur)

These directors did not obey their Vow for very long. But other filmmakers were certainly aware of it, and it inspired discussion. To me, some of its precepts seemed arbitrary (why no black and white? why only Academy?). And why was conventional editing permitted? As a director and an editor, I had grown tired of the mainstream, Monoform editing strategy and was in my plano secuencia decade. The good thing about Dogme 95’s Vow was its attempt to shake things up, especially in the narrative area, and create a new direction for popular cinema.

It did not succeed, just as Surrealism, as a philosophy of life, did not endure. People are still content to sit in rows and rows, watching the Monoform accelerate. Monoform storytelling is ubiquitous throughout our visual media — and has been for a long, long time. KOYAANISQATSI is brilliant, ground-breaking in various ways, but it relies on a dramatic, insistent musical score. It still is rooted in the Monoform, as is Peter Watkins’ own film, THE WAR GAME, for different reasons.

Soon it will be your turn to face these questions. What kind of story do you want to tell? Why do you want to tell it? How are you going to tell it? What good will it do? Does the world really need another zombie or serial killer or superhero movie? Will the films you make follow the pattern that we see today? Will interactivity be possible for a large group, and how will it be experienced?

When I wrote about Greenaway’s speech twelve years ago, I believed that new technology in the cinema would encourage a new form of narrative, and that within a generation audiences would be demanding interactivity: that films be malleable, like games. Half a generation has passed and nothing of the kind has happened. Are films destined to remain the same, just with extra-loud audio channels, or more pixels, or faster frame-rates?

Francis Coppola’s most recent feature, TWIXT (USA, 2011) was designed so that someone – the director? – watching the film with an audience could select alternate plot directions. Coppola filmed alternate scenes but as far as I can tell an interactive version of the film has not been released.

Coppola, like George Lucas, is from the Bay Area; his film THE CONVERSATION was shot in San Francisco, which was his production base for many years. Lucas has a bucolic “movie ranch” in San Rafael which he uses for post-production. There are also a number of visual effects companies there, including Tippett Studio in Berkeley. Phil Tippett began his work as a stop-motion model animator; today his company specializes in digital visual effects. For more than 20 years, Phil has been tinkering with an idea – and building and shooting miniature sets with animated characters – for a film called MAD GOD. In 2013 he raised $124,000 from 2,500 backers via a Kickstarter campaign in order to shoot more and complete the beginning of the film. Many of Tippett’s own crew, who usually work on Hollywood movies like the TWILIGHT franchise, volunteered to work on MAD GOD as well.

The first version of MAD GOD Phil has released is 11 minutes long. He’s almost completed MAD GOD 2. MAD GOD 2 is 15 minutes more. Phil Tippett says he’s going to continue working on MAD GOD until he dies, so it’s possible that there will, ultimately, be a feature-length version of a film which only he could create, whose Kickstarter campaign page rightly described as Phil’s “apocalyptic stop-motion descent into the bowels of the unconscious.”

And why not? Must features always follow the same dramatic twists-and-terms, the same reversals and happy ends, the same 90 to 120 minute running time, the same three-act structure?

One time, when there was a lull in the usual hectic pace of post-production VFX, the crew at Tippett Studio took several creatures they had already created, in software, for other projects, and put them into a new, mash-up adventure, entitled MUTANTLAND. What they made was a short, just a few minutes long. But why not a feature, travelling through this mutantland, or many mutantlands or Surrealist universes or alien landscapes, its narrative direction decided by a majority vote, using clickers? We could do that now. It would be a lot more work than making one single narrative, and would require more money. But crazy films with mutable structures – live action or animations – could be made and screened today.

For some unconscious, animal reason, people like getting together in groups.   Whether it’s for work or play. Whether it’s to make a movie or to watch one, or for a party, or for sports, or for music, or to demonstrate their feeling on a political matter, people get together, and where I think that Greenaway is wrong is his suggestion that this communal aspect of cinema will disappear.

Film is a group art form, and its enjoyment, by another group, on a big screen is part of the art. I feel bad for those who haven’t made it to our Wednesday screenings, or to the IFS this semester. You may think you’ve already seen the film, or that you’ll catch it later – but watching CITIZEN KANE on your laptop, and seeing it in the cinema, are very different things.

The last film we’ll watch is HOLY MOTORS (France, 2012). It’s complex, very well acted, and pretty crazy: dark yet full of jokes and references to other films, and I hope that you’ll get them, and see a bit more of what the film’s about, as a result of all you’ve learned in these fifteen weeks.

I appreciate how hard you’ve worked, and your presence here. Intro to Film is not an easy course. It involves a lot of information, much of which you’ve taken on board in the form of knowledge, and appreciation of the magnificence and diversity of international film. A well-rounded, educated person in any society on this planet should know who Kurosawa was, who Fellini was, who Kubrick was, and be able to discuss their films.

And the same goes for Buñuel. Now you can do this.

This is a critical studies course, one of various courses you’ll take if you are a Film Studies student and opt for the production track. The production program here is a particularly good one, partially because it’s grounded in an understanding and appreciation of the history of film. But those who go into production must ponder the inevitable question: how do I get a job doing this? There is no one answer. Here you can acquire skills, as a production student, in editing, and cinematography, in working with actors, and other aspects of filmmaking. These are transferable skills, marketable skills. Many a serious cinematographer began their career taking pictures of weddings. Media skills pay bills!

But what if you want to be Emmanuel Lubezki, the Mexican cinematographer who shot GRAVITY and BIRDMAN, or his equivalent? How do you do that? How do you become a professional cinematographer, or screenwriter, or production designer, or director?

I will tell you the secret. The secret is, you partner up, because you cannot do it alone. When you make your films, you will need a crew. You will almost certainly need actors. Here at CU, with good fortune, you will discover what your talents are. And you will meet others, of your generation, with complimentary skills. Some of you will prove to be good writers, others good directors, animators, editors, sound designers. Some of you will be excellent with a camera, and will shoot the others’ films. Some will discover they have producer skills — develop them, for they are vital. The bonds and working relationships you make here will sustain you after you graduate. Why go to New York or LA to look for work when you can stay in Colorado and make a low-budget feature film? Remember what those Nicaraguans told me, “If you are intelligent, you can do it.”

I got my start in the film industry as a writer. I was a film student at UCLA, and before I graduated I visited two friends from school who had graduated the year before. They had started a production company, making corporates and low-budget commercials. I asked them, why not make features, too? They said it was because they had no scripts. I will be your scriptwriter, I declared! And they agreed. What did they have to lose? They read the first script I wrote for them, showed it to a production manager, and said it was too expensive. Not discouraged, I wrote another script for them to consider: REPO MAN.

That was how I, and the producers, and the casting director, and the sound recordist, and several of the actors, got our start in feature films. Your route will be different. Maybe your work will be in the Internet, or in episodic television. Maybe you’ll work on one of the new, interactive narratives we trepidatiously anticipate. But your path as a filmmaker will grow of the work you do here with your colleagues, and your ability to stick together in support of common goal.

For our last clip, I’ll screen the beginning of Abbas Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP (Iran, 1990). Iran is one of the many countries whose cinema we haven’t touched upon. This is a taste of another cinema, of another form of dramatic narrative in which the actors play themselves. It also features an amazing performance by an aerosol can.

Thank you again for all your efforts. Otaskare samu desu da!


Latin American Film

Last week Tod Davies showed us a clip from Buñuel’s DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGOISIE in which the Ambassador of Miranda, played by Fernando Rey, is repeatedly insulted by dinner party guests who have no idea where his country is. Ah, your pyramids! The Pampas! No, the pyramids are in Mexico and Guatemala; the Pampas are in Argentina…

Miranda is an imaginary country, but its Ambassador is right to complain. Outside Latin America, very little is known of Latin America, even though more than 600 million people reside there, a third of whom speak Portugese. Of the remaining 400 million, most speak Spanish, though there are also more than ten million Quechua and Aymara speakers, six million speakers of Mayan languages, five million Guarani speakers, and two million Nahuatl speakers. As President Ronald Reagan famously observed after a trip to Latin America in 1982, “You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.” And indeed they are!

Latin American cinema really began with the advent of sound, which meant that domestic producers could create work focused on, and understood by, a local audience. Most countries saw some film production, and some smaller industries developed – for example, in Peru and Colombia, and in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. The three main producing countries were – and are – Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. Of the three the one I know the best is Mexico. I have been an actor, a director, and a second unit director there. So most of the films I’ll discuss will be Mexican ones.

The first clip we’ll see is from VAMONOS CON PANCHO VILLA! / LET’S GO WITH PANCHO VILLA! (Mexico, 1936), directed by Fernando de Fuentes. It is a war film, telling the story of six men who enlist in Pancho Villa’s Division del Norte during the Mexican Revolution. All but one of them is killed, in increasingly senseless ways. The film was funded by the Mexican government, and Pancho Villa is treated ambiguously – he’s an inspirational and successful leader, but also a macho and a killer, who cares nothing for the lives of his own men. In a scene which de Fuentes cut from the final version, Villa orders his troops to murder the sole survivor’s family, so that the man will follow him on another mission. That scene survives on the DVD as an additional element. VAMONOS CON PANCHO VILLA! may seem crude, by our sophisticated standards, but it was a serious achievement for a nascent film industry to produce an epic on this scale.

VAMONOS CON PANCHO VILLA ushered in what is known as the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. Government support for the cinema increased as film was recognized as a tool of state projects which included modernization, education, and the promotion of a “national” identity. In the 1940s, one director became identified – nationally and internationally – with Mexican cinema and the telling of specifically Mexican stories: Emilio Fernandez. Fernandez was known as “El Indio” – his father was of European extraction, his mother a Kikapú Indian. Fernandez worked frequently with the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa and developed a vision of Mexico which resembled the mise-en-scene of the Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein had begun a feature film there, QUE VIVA MEXICO! (Russia/Mexico, 1930), only to run out of money and abandon it the following year. Though incomplete, the footage from QUE VIVA MEXICO! was used for several short films, and the film acquired a legendary reputation. Figueroa also won a scholarship to go to the United States and be the apprentice of Gregg Toland, who shot CITIZEN KANE.

Figueroa combined the graphic rural compositions of Eisenstein with Toland’s deep focus and dramatic interior lighting. His vision of Mexico is as highly regarded today as that of the Mexican muralists – including Diego Riviera – who were his contemporaries and friends. A good example of this style is the credit sequence of ENAMORADA / WOMAN IN LOVE (Mexico, 1946): it introduces the principal characters, featuring striking, low-angle, wide-angle shots framed by agave cactus.

Fernandez also wrote and directed RIO ESCONDIDO (Mexico, 1948), the story of an idealistic young teacher, played by Maria Felix, who is one of many sent by the President of Mexico to set up schools and educate children in distant provinces. Her mission is opposed by the local Presidente Municipal, who oppresses the local people for his personal gain. Rosaura, the teacher, defies him, sets up a school, and rids the village of smallpox. In return, Don Regino murders adopted her son and attempts to rape her. Rosaura shoots him dead, but suffers a heart attack. She survives long enough to receive a letter from the President, congratulating her.

Emilio Fernandez played the macho role for everything it was worth. He declared himself the incarnation of Mexican film (“Yo soy el cine Mexicano!”), threatened a journalist with a gun, and shot another man. Yet his films feature strong female characters who oppose and defeat their male oppressors, or die trying. He was more complicated than the macho bandit generals and caciques he played in later years, when directing jobs were harder to come by. The image of El Indio was the macho par excellence, but his filmmaking message was feminist. RIO ESCONDIDO begins with a title explaining that “This story is not about the Mexico of today,” but it clearly is. Fernandez tells the tale of an unfinished Revolution, whose promises of education, healthcare, and equality have not yet been fulfilled. The film’s villain is a governmental functionary – the mayor. So, despite being lionized and self-identifying as the essence of Mexican cinema, by the late 1950s, Fernandez’ vision of things and the government’s had diverged.

By the 1950s, the public’s interest in rural dramas such as these had faded. People were leaving the country and moving into the big cities; urban dramas became popular. One of these was LOS OLVIDADOS (Mexico, 1950), directed by Luis Buñuel. Buñuel, of course, was the director of UN CHIEN ANDALOU and L’AGE D’OR. He had joined the fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, fled Spain, and found work in New York and Los Angeles. Losing both jobs, he moved to Mexico, where he became a film director again.

As with RIO ESCONDIDO, LOS OLVIDADOS opens with a disclaimer, insisting that this is not specific; these problems happen everywhere; accompanied by shots of New York, London and Paris. But LOS OLVIDADOS is specific: a story of street children and other very poor people living on the edge of Mexico City. It was recognized as great film, winning Buñuel the “best director” award at Cannes the following year. El Indio Fernandez had also won the Grand Prize at Cannes for MARIA CANDELARIA (Mexico, 1946) and in both cases the foreign award increased their status at home. Buñuel was Spanish, but Mexico City became home for him and he lived the rest of his life there. After his career re-ingited with the move to Mexico, he directed 21 features there, three in Spain, and five in France. Fernandez’ career waned, as Buñuel became Mexico’s best-known, most highly-regarded director. But Buñuel, too, struggled to get good budgets, and did, at times, complain about the production circumstances in Mexico. He regretted, in his memoirs, that the actors had all had to use the same fine-linen napkin for their closeups in EXTERMINATING ANGEL (Mexico, 1962), because the production could only afford one.

Buñuel appreciated the European crews and customs he encountered filming DISCREET CHARM at a studio in Paris. By the early 1960s, Mexico’s cinema – like all of Latin America’s – was an artistic culture of scarcity, in which amazing things had to be done with little or no resources. EXTERMINATING ANGEL is an example of the brilliance and resourcefulness of the Mexican cinema – and also of its boldness, since it is a film no European producer would have made. It is the story of some wealthy urbanites who gather for dinner, only to discover that they cannot leave the dining room. Days pass. Order, decency and sanity break down. No reason is given.

Buñuel said, “The characters in UN CHIEN ANDALOU are enclosed in a room where they torment each other; the protagonist of L’AGE D’OR is waging a one-man war against society, and society fights back; the kids in LOS OLVIDADOS fight and kill each other … The characters in EXTERMINATING ANGEL don’t leave because they can’t leave, without ever knowing why. In Sartre’s play [Huis Clos / No Exit] they do know; they are dead, and they are in hell. The entire premise is different. My apologies to Sartre, but I think there is more mystery in EXTERMINATING ANGEL.”
Colina & Perez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel, pg. 193

Latin American cinema is hard to separate from the European filmmakers who became part of it, like Buñuel; from the American and Russian filmmakers who influenced it, like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein; and those who took advantage of the continent’s visual beauty and storytelling potential to make Hollywood movies and impose their own visions – just as the Spanish conquistadores, the US Marines, the United Fruit Company, and the CIA had done, in pursuit of global visions of their own.

In 1959, a Revolution in Cuba led to the state’s seizure of farms and factories, including film laboratories, and in very few years to the first-ever third-world, leftist film industry. Given the constant US embargo and a series of terrorist attacks, in particular the attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs, developing a working film industry was a very difficult thing. But the Cubans managed it. In the early 1960s a small team of Russian filmmakers went to Cuba and, using a Cuban cast and crew, shot a narrative drama which celebrated the island and its Revolution: SOY CUBA (Russia/Cuba, 1964). The film features some remarkable long takes, shot on infra-red film, big crowd scenes, and ambitious battle sequences. Here is a glimpse of it.

How do you make a revolution without murdering your enemies? That difficult question is addressed here. But Cuban cinema wasn’t only for visiting Russian directors. An industry of native writers, producers and directors soon appeared. LUCIA (Cuba, 1968), directed by Humberto Solás, is the story of three different women, all named Lucía, from different periods in Cuban history, shot is completely different cinematic styles. MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (Cuba, 1968), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, tells the tale of a womanizing writer who remains in Cuba after his wife and friends flee to the US to escape the hardships of the Revolution. These and other Cuban films were screened internationally and won prizes at festivals. Despite the US embargo, they were even shown in the United States.

Cuban cinema was internationally celebrated, and yet, in our text book, there is no mention of it. SOY CUBA, Gutiérrez Alea, Solás, according to William H. Phillips and his Film: An Introduction, none of these exist. Cuba doesn’t even appear as a place-name, in his index. And yet, if we turn to Phillips’ time-line, we read that Fidel Castro became premier of Cuba after a successful Revolution in 1959, and that the US sponsored the Bay of Pigs invasion. Alea’s fourth Cuban feature, MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, is mentioned in the timeline, but nowhere in the book’s text.

As far as the book and its author are concerned, Cuba exists as a nation of minor political note, whose cinema is unworthy of discussion. Whereas our own Stan Brakhage, an American experimentalist, receives five pages of citations in the index, and multiple mentions in Phillips’ “films and videos” timeline. Of course, everyone has a political point of view, and personal preferences. But to privilege the tiny world of American “experimental” art cinema over the original third-world cinema movement, isn’t just a matter of taste. It is a matter of deliberate obfuscation. In other words, a form of censorship.

Our textbook is even worse regarding events in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Nicaragua (a country of three million inhabitants at the time) is portrayed as a menacing threat in Phillips’ timeline, but its cinema is entirely ignored.  The feature I made there and LOS OLVIDADOS are part of the same phenomenon: that of the visiting European filmmaker who comes to tell a Latin American tale. Another example of this form is AGUIRRE – THE WRATH OF GOD (Germany/Peru, 1972), directed by one of the guiding lights of the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog. Herzog journeyed with a small crew and a large cast to the Peruvian Amazon to make a bio-pic about a little-known Spanish conquistador, Don Lope de Aguirre. It is a given that when foreigners make a film in Latin America, they will miscast it. American Westerns went out of their way to cast Greeks, Puerto Ricans, and Polish-Americans as Mexicans. AGUIRRE is a mish-mosh of Mexican, Cuban and European actors – yet its principal act of “miscasting” – Klaus Kinski in the role of the Spaniard Aguirre – is utterly inspired. Kinski was a blond German actor who became famous playing bad guys in Italian Westerns: he was the leader of the gang of killers in IL GRANDE SILENZIO. Kinski wasn’t Spanish, didn’t look the least bit Spanish, and he and his entire party speak German. But he was also one of the most intense, entirely engaged film actors ever. Kinski’s performance in AGUIRRE is perhaps the best work he ever did.

Werner Herzog later made a documentary about Kinski, MY BEST FIEND (Germany, 1999), in which he portrayed the actor as a maniac. But Klaus Kinski was also the loyalest of actors, whom Herzog could frequently count on to endure difficult conditions, and to step in and replace other movie stars, when they quit – as both Mick Jagger and Jason Robards did during the filming of Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO (Germany/Peru 1982).

WALKER, written by Rudy Wurlitzer and produced by Lorenzo O’Brien, was shot in Nicaragua in 1987. It came about this way:

“We were on our way to Nicaragua to join one of those left-wing tours. If you’ve ever been on one, you’ll know what I mean. A group of 11 or 12 visits the Human Rights Commission and the Children’s Hospital and the Opposition Newspaper, and spends a lot of time sitting on a bus. The itinerary was boring, but the people and the place were not. Nicaragua is magnificently lush, dusty, and impoverished. Its inhabitants are imbued with a sense of optimism and determination … displaying a sense of self-worth that comes only after you overthrow a fascist dynasty which has bled your country dry for fifty years.

“We were there for the Nicaraguan Elections (the first democratic elections since the US Marines invaded in the 1920s), and Managua [the capital city] was packed with journalists and observers from the European Parliament: hence, our little party spent its evenings in the cities of Granada and Leon, where there were still hotel beds available. One night in Leon, we got talking with two young guys who had been fighting the contras [a terrorist army funded by the drug trade and the US taxpayer] in the north. At this time the contra war was three years old.

“Both were 18, and both were wounded. One had shrapnel in his stomach, the other had lost an eye. Now they were waiting for a place at agriculture school. They asked us what we did. I said I was a filmmaker, and they said, ‘Why don’t you come down here and make a film?’ I started a rambling series of excuses – it costs a lot to make films, I am a poor man, etc. – but they cut me off. ‘Bullshit. You come from the land of money. If you are intelligent, you can come back here and make a film’.”
(from my notes for the UK release of WALKER, 1989)

WALKER (Nicaragua/USA, 1987), the film which I directed as a result of this conversation, is one of several features made in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Nicaragua is a small, very poor country in Central America. Prior to the 1980s a grand total of two films were shot there. But the Sandinista Revolution which in 1979 overthrew a dictator, Somoza, inspired many hopes. Even though Nicaragua was extremely poor, for the first time there was state money for the arts. Not a lot – things like health care, education, and national defence were considered more important. But Nicaraguan films were at last being made. And foreign filmmakers were drawn to Nicaragua, because of the political situation, and the positive changes taking place.

Among the films made in Nicaragua at this time were EL SEÑOR PRESIDENTE (France/Cuba/Nicaragua, 1983), LATINO (US/Nicaragua,1985), directed by the American cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, ALSINO AND THE CONDOR (Argentina/Nicaragua, 1983), and SANDINO (Spain/Nicaragua, 1990), both ambitious, big pictures, directed by a Chilean, Miguel Littín. Like WALKER, these were international co-productions with the finance coming from abroad, and the Nicaraguans providing crews, logistics, locations, extras, construction and accommodation. But the Nicas also made multi-subject documentaries called noticieros , and at least one entirely Nicaraguan dramatic feature, EL ESPECTRO DE LA GUERRA / THE SPECTRE OF WAR (Nicaragua, 1988), directed by Ramiro Lacayo.

According to Wikipedia en español, the 1980s was the época de oro del cine nicaraguense: the golden age of Nicaraguan cinema. It was good to be part of that. WALKER was filmed during a time of war, with mostly American, European, and Mexican actors, and a largely Mexican/Nicaraguan crew. In theory, it takes place in the 1850s, but as the story progresses the viewer encounters numerous things that don’t belong back then. These are anachronisms. Their purpose is to suggest a connection between this long-ago bio-pic and the present day.

Does it succeed? Do the anachronisms help or hinder the picture? Does the film make sense, or is it just a lot of mayhem? Does a bio-pic set in the mid-nineteenth century, made in the late twentieth, have any relevance today?

Today, Latin American cinema continues to be made for the domestic market, though the number of films grows less as the state support lessens and competition from American films and domestic television increases. Occassionally a Latin American film will break into the international distribution market: AMORES PERROS (Mexico, 2000) received the Grand Prize at Cannes and numerous other awards; CITY OF GOD (Brazil, 2002) won numerous prizes around the world. And in some countries, state support for films which criticize the state continues. One good example is LA HORA CERO (Venezuela, 2010), a story of gangsters who raid a hospital in Caracas in search of medical attention. What could have been a typical, Bruce Willis-style hostage movie becomes, in the hands of its director/writer, Diego Velasco, considerably more. LA HORA CERO is set in 1996, the year of a real hospital strike in Venezuela. As you’ll see from the opening sequence, and the credits, this enables the film to work both as a violent, action-adventure film, and as a critique of the health care system then in place. How was a two-tier health care system affected by a strike in the lower tier? Was the strike illegal? Did the poor and marginalized have access to health care at all?

LA HORA CERO, partially funded by the Venezuelan state, serves as a popular action picture and as a critique of an unfair and unreformed health care system. It is LOS OLVIDADOS for the 21st century, featuring machine guns, cars, and motorcycles.

Political Film Drama in Mexico

In Latin America, authentic popular entertainment has always dealt with hard political issues. Scandals avoided by mainstream newspapers, and later television, would be keenly dissected by corridas — popular ballads, often risque, often political, that were sung in the street. For the generation of Latin American filmmakers who grew up in the 1960s, the goal was often to make a popular, political film.

As we saw, the Mexican government supported film with direct investment from the 1930s on. Film was part of a project to create an image of the new state, and of its citizens. The flip side of the funding was state censorship. In Mexico the state censor was supposed to read and approve each script. This applied to foreign films, as well. When we discussed shooting WALKER in Mexico, Rudy’s script went to the state censor, who gave us notes. As I recall, they had to do with preserving the dignity of two of the Nicaraguan characters, and were not bad notes for us to receive. But a state censor could also visit the set, and was usually present during the shooting of a foreign film. Tom Richmond and Bob Richardson, cinematographers of SALVADOR (USA, 1986) told me that when they shot in Mexico the censor always insisted that trash be cleaned up. Even though the film was set in El Salvador, not Mexico, the censor was concerned about the audience’s reaction to that area of the mise-en-scene.

Some great, intelligent, innovative Mexican films were made under this regime: but it could not endure. The film which broke the system was made, in secret, by the director Jorge Fons and a small crew in 1989. It was called ROJO AMANECER. The English translation of the title is “Red Dawn” but it has nothing to do with the American action films. It begins on the morning of October 2, 1968, in an apartment overlooking a big, modern square in Mexico City — Tlatelolco Square. Today a big demonstration is scheduled, not that this means much to most of the inhabitants of the apartment, who have to get up and go to school, or work. At six o’clock, a helicopter drops flares into the Square, and   soldiers and gunmen in civilian dress open fire on the demonstrators from windows and rooftops. Hundreds of demonstrators are killed. Hundreds more are kidnapped and “disappeared” as they attempt to flee through the surrounding apartment complexes.

The massacre in Tlatelolco is never shown. Instead the entire film focuses on the middle-class family who watch it from the windows of their apartment, and who attempt to shelter some fleeing, wounded students.

ROJO AMANECER was shot clandestinely in a warehouse belonging to a camera rental company, on a set built to replicate the family’s apartment. There was no possibility of staging the massacre sequence. There was no budget for it, and the authorities would have found out, and shut the production down. The Tlatelolco massacre had been kept out of the public discourse for twenty years – not only in Mexico, but also abroad. Ironically, Mexico City was packed with foreign journalists when the massacre occurred; but they were there to cover the Olympic Games, and apparently refrained from reporting the massacre so as not to spoil the party.

A minimal budget and a single set were the ultimate economy of scarcity. And once again, that economy of scarcity worked in a good film’s favour — obliging the director, the cinematographer, and the designer to concentrate on the characters, and forget the visual effects.

By virtue of its one set (there are also a few scenes on rooftops and on the building staircase), ROJO AMANECER is austere and concentrated. It packs more punch by suggesting, rather than showing us things. The state censor insisted that the filmmakers cut two scenes in which Mexican army uniforms were seen, and ROJO AMANECER was released a year after it was made, in 1990.

ROJO AMANECER was highly popular, and encouraged a younger generation of Mexican filmmakers to push the boundaries further. When we made EL PATRULLERO in Mexico in 1991, the state censor never appeared, though we were still advised not to show a picture of the actual President (which would otherwise hang in our police station), nor mention any political parties. I can recall no censor intervention at all on DEATH & THE COMPASS (Mexico, 1992).

Mexican cinema survives even after the end of the Ley de Cine and a flood of dubbed American product into the cinemas and DVD racks. Sometimes younger Mexican directors are swept up by Hollywood and set to work directing BATMAN movies. One director who has resisted the call del Norte is Luis Estrada. Luis has cornered the market in that most difficult of forms, the popular political comedy. He has made four, so far. The first of them was, at the time, the most financially successful Mexican picture ever. LA LEY DE HERODES / HEROD’S LAW (Mexico, 1999) tells the story of Juan Vargas, a junkyard operator and a member of the PRI – the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which ran Mexico for 70 consecutive years. A job opening has appeared – the mayor of a provincial town – and Perez gets it. He starts to make money, comes into conflict with the town doctor, who is a supporter of a rival political party, the PAN – Partido de Accion Nacional, and makes a deal with the church.

In Estrada’s film, just like the ruling party, Vargas is successful for a long while but ultimately fails, due to very visible corruption and various unexplained murders. Finally, the town rises up against him – but he escapes and reinvents himself as a crusading reformer for the PRI. LA LEY DE HERODES, partially funded by the state, was the first Mexican drama to identify the political parties by name, and the first comedy about them. When it was finished, it was repudiated by its financiers, and struggled to get distribution. The film was acquired by a subsidiary of the American studio, Fox, and was hugely successful when it finally opened. It was even credited, in an exaggerated estimate of film’s influence, with turning the Presidential election against the PRI, in favour of the PAN. But the film raucously depicts the antipathy between two political parties, both right-wing, one of which will not cede power to the other. Estrada followed LA LEY DE HERODES with UN MUNDO MARAVILLOSO (Mexico, 2006). Set in the near future, it tells the story of a homeless man – Juan Perez, played by Damian Alcazar – who embarrasses the government, only to be coopted and made part of a political campaign. The film has overtones of steampunk and of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Unable to solve the problem of poverty, the government decides instead to do away with the poor. A colder, less overtly funny film than LA LEY DE HERODES, it was not as popular.

Estrada followed this film with a comedy about the Drug War, EL INFIERNO / HELL (Mexico, 2010).  Damian Alcazar plays a recent deportee from the United States, El Benny. Benny, having tried to earn an honest living abroad, discovers that all his former friends are now involved in the drug trade, or dead. He joins up as well.

In all these films, whether he’s called Vargas, or Perez, or El Benny, Damian plays pretty much the same character: a likeable, good-natured guy, poor, well-meaning, who, given the opportunity to do something really bad for money, will always take it. He is the antithesis of the protagonists of Emilio Fernandez’ films, who were loyal and honest and would die rather than break their moral code. Yet the 21st century protagonist could not exist without its predecessor. If films in Mexico’s Golden Age – the 1940s – were both a mirror of the nation and a means of shaping it – what do Luis Estrada’s films tell us about Mexico today, about its crisis, and about its prospects?

Sometimes films change their tone and this is one of them. Starting like an engaging comedy, EL INFIERNO becomes increasingly serious. Determined to save his nephew from the drug cartel, El Benny goes to the federal police, only to discover that they too work for the cartel. The film ends with a paroxysm of violent revenge, and a coda which reveals the uselessness of Benny’s efforts.

Last year, Luis made another film with Damian. As always, he co-wrote the screenplay with Jaime Sampietro. LA DICTADURA PERFECTA (Mexico, 2014) takes up the story of the man Juan Vargas aspired to be: Carmelo Vargas, governor of the state. The time is now. When the young President of Mexico embarrasses himself on national television, the Party has to find a scapegoat to distract the attention of the media. It settles on Vargas, and releases video of the governor accepting a large bribe.

The plan works, the media focuses its attention on Vargas, and the President carries on. It looks like Vargas is ruined, and on his way to jail. But Vargas isn’t stupid, nor without resources. He visits the TV company which exposed him and hires its public relations arm to represent him in the future. They will be paid, extremely well, out of state funds. The media consultants who now work for Vargas are the same people who run the national TV station and manage PR for the PRI.

The trailer for LA DICTADURA is in Spanish. But film is an international language, and if you watch it I believe you’ll understand what’s going on. Since the film refers to certain actual political events, and Luis and his colleagues are not shy about pointing this out, there exists a second version of the trailer in which actual footage of inane or corrupt politicians, or their voices, and sensational television footage replace the trailer images. It has not played in the cinema or on TV, but you can watch it here.

Further reading:

Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, Vintage, 1984

Dolores Tierney, Emilio Fernandez: Pictures in the Margins, MUP, 2007

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, Buñuel and Mexico: the Crisis of National Cinema, UCLA, 2003

Jose de la Colina & Tomas Perez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel, Marsilio, 1992

Jonathan Buchsbaum, Cinema and the Sandinistas: Filmmaking in Revolutionary Nicaragua, U of Texas, 2003


European Film

Today let us embark on the impossible task of looking at European film, in an hour and 15 minutes. As you know, Europe is a patchwork of countries speaking diverse languages. Every one of these countries has a national cinema. Most of these countries had a national cinema before the Second World War. But that war was so drastic, so devastating, that more than one enjoyed a political and artistic re-awakening after 1945.

It is hard to believe, but in several European countries women weren’t allowed to vote until the turmoil of the War made women’s suffrage possible. France only allowed women to vote in 1944, Italy in 1946, Greece in 1952. In Switzerland, so often held up as the European ideal, women were not allowed to vote until 1971! So by our standards and expectations, much of pre-War Europe was a backward, sexist place, and backward, sexist societies tend not to produce good art. France and Italy had been damaged, but not devastated by the War — unlike Germany and Russia, which suffered massive destruction and unusually high numbers of civilian casualties. Economic recovery brought with it a renaissance in the arts, most of all in film.

France saw the Nouvelle Vague — a new wave of young filmmakers working on shoestring budgets. Italy saw the rise of the neorealistas – the young realists. Both movements quickly rejected studio shooting in favour of real locations. These films were often made with amateur actors. Roberto Rosselini’s ROME: OPEN CITY (Italy, 1945) was shot only two months after Italy surrendered. It is a story of partisan resistance against the Nazis. Its hero is a communist resistance leader, whom the German Gestapo torture to death. Vittorio deSica’s BICYCLE THIEVES (Italy, 1948) dealt with post-War Italy and the hardships of working-class life, again with mainly amateur actors, and showed how cruel post-War austerity could be. BICYCLE THIEVES is one of the best films ever made. Though it was shot on the streets and in real locations, there is still some studio work: the scene where father and son ride in a garbage truck in the rain, and almost hit a pedestrian, is clearly a rear-projection shot. And the Nazi bunker in ROME: OPEN CITY looks like a studio set. Even in arduous circumstances, the new generation of Italian filmmakers never gave up on the artifice of film in favour of an entirely documentary style.

Neorealist films were popular abroad, but less so at home, especially as living conditions improved in the 1950s. American films were flooding the market, and Italian politicians were keen to promote more positive, modern images. Giulio Andreotti, a mafia-connected Christian Democrat politician, attacked Neorealism as “dirty laundry that shouldn’t be washed and hung out to dry in the open.”

In France, the New Wave was supported and sustained by an influential film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, which began publication in 1951. Several of its critics, including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Francois Truffaut, became prominent directors, following – at the beginning of their careers – the New Wave style of long takes rather than conventional editing strategies.

Not all French directors were part of the New Wave. Jean Cocteau looked to Greek mythology and fairy tales for his inspiration, and was a master of inexpensive yet impressive visual effects. His great films include BEAUTY & THE BEAST / LA BELLE ET LA BETE (France, 1946), and ORPHEE – the story of Orpheus and Eurydice – filmed in a visibly war-torn landscape in 1950. In ORPHEE, Cocteau used ruined buildings as locations, ran the camera backwards, employed rear projection and infra-red film, and devised ultra-quick costume changes. Some of his inexpensive effects were so complex that it’s still hard to see how they were achieved.

At the other end of the spectrum of French film was Robert Bresson: A MAN ESCAPED / UN CONDAMNÉ A MORT S’EST ÉCHAPPÉ (France, 1956) is a minimalist depiction of his own wartime experiences as a partisan, and prisoner of the Germans. (The film has the same theme as ROME: OPEN CITY — a Nazi occupation, supported by politicians, police, and civilian collaborators, opposed by partisans who risk death – and worse – to defeat it.)

In Italy, filmmakers who had begun their careers as Neorealists had to find other forms of storytelling. One of them, Federico Fellini, earned international auteur status with glossy depictions of Roman high-life like LA DOLCE VITA (Italy, 1960) and 8 1/2 (Italy, 1963). Other directors were not as fortunate as Fellini, or as Francesco Rosi. Many of their contemporaries found work as assistants on Hollywood coproductions which shot in Italy because it was cheaper. Sergio Leone was one of the second unit directors on SODOM AND GOMORRAH (USA, 1962). Out of the experience and set construction of these coproductions, vibrant genres and sub-genres would emerge: the gladiator picture, the Italian Western, and the giallo – a broad Italian genre which includes thrillers, crime fiction, and slasher films.

British cinema has always lurched from crisis to crisis. One of the disadvantages of sharing a common language with a superpower is that smaller states tend to be swamped with its cultural products: film, music, television, and now the Internet. For a long time the Mexican film industry was protected by a Ley de Cine which insisted that English-language films could not be dubbed in Spanish, only subtitled. This functioned as a literacy program, and limited American penetration of the national cinema. Britain could rely on no such strategy. Before the Second World War, the government had encouraged American studios to set up British production units so as to meet quota requirements. In 1947 it placed a tax on American film imports, which resulted in Hollywood boycotting the British market; the tax was abolished by 1948’s Anglo-American Film Agreement. Instead of a tax, the British Board of Trade imposed a ceiling on the amount of money earned that the Hollywood studios could repatriate: in other words, a certain amount of the studios’ profits had to remain in Britain, and be spent on film-related activities. The Board of Trade estimated this would be about $20 million a year. In 1950 the British Film Production Fund was established: a small tax on cinema admissions, the Fund provided several million pounds a year to British producers, and to the studios’ British subsidiaries. This was named “Eady money” after the politician who sponsored it.

Both France and Italy had set up similar subsidy schemes to attract American production, but the British subsidy was four times larger than the French, and twice as large as the Italian, so not surprisingly the bulk of Hollywood’s offshore production went to Britain. Over the years, the British government re-worked its subsidies, in an ongoing attempt to support domestic production which usually ended up funding the studios.

What impact did this have on British cinema? Did it create more British pictures? And what was the nature of the films that got made? For the most part, the American/British productions were “big” pictures geared to an international audience: colourful historical adventures like TREASURE ISLAND (UK, 1950) and IVANHOE (UK, 1952) or war films like BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (UK, 1957) and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (UK, 1961). LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (US/UK 1962) “qualified” as British, and was thus able to receive subsidies, even though less than four of its 202 minutes were shot there. It appears that the British tax authorities were shown a concocted budget which “padded” the film’s British spend, and included the salary of the American producer, Sam Spiegel, because he had a British residence. But revenue from the international release of LAWRENCE flowed not to the British shell company which made it, but to Columbia, the studio which financed it, and for whom Sam Spiegel worked.

In the early 1960s a small independent production company, Woodfall, made films in the New Wave style: stories with working class protagonists, which took place in cities other than London. THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER (UK, 1962) is a fine example. By the mid-1960s Woodfall was making bigger films, for the international market, like THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (UK, 1968). Both were directed by Tony Richardson. In the 1970s, the studios’ British presence increased: GET CARTER (UK, 1971) was made by MGM British Studios, while Warner Bros. funded Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS (UK, 1971), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and O LUCKY MAN! (UK, 1973) via British “shell” companies.

We screen the end of O LUCKY MAN!, directed by Lindsay Anderson, who appears in the latter part of the sequence, and who combined both the Brechtian and the Surrealist approach, at least in his early films. The protagonist, Michael Travis, is played by Malcolm McDowell, who also starred in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE the same year, and played the lead in Anderson’s previous picture, IF… (UK, 1968). In IF…, McDowell played a schoolboy who starts a violent revolution at his exclusive school: hence the schoolbooks and the gun which Anderson asks him to hold. Most of the actors in O LUCKY MAN! play multiple roles, which is why McDowell’s character seems to recognize so many people. Lindsay Anderson plays himself, in the power film director outfit of red shirt and black leather jacket.

Studio money funded a number of good British features, especially in the 1970s. But the British industry became dependent on it, and seemed unable to develop without it. What are perceived as successful “English” franchises – Harry Potter and James Bond – are Hollywood studio series, whose international profits flow back to the parent company in the United States. In the 1980s, a British TV company, Central, set up a production arm, Zenith, which funded or co-financed British features, including my film, SID & NANCY. Margaret Matheson was their inspired head of production. But they did not endure. Other companies were simply absorbed by the studios. Working Title, another independent British company which specialized in London-based rom-coms, was acquired by Universal Pictures as its “indy” British subsidiary.

The New German Cinema came late. The country had been divided in two by the former Allies. Almost all the infrastructure and much urban housing had to be rebuilt before a re-birth of cinema was even possible. In the 1970s, this occurred. A new generation of film directors emerged, all of whom made features which gained them international attention. It included Werner Hertzog (AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD, 1972), Wim Wenders (THE AMERICAN FRIEND, 1977), Volker Schloendorf (THE TIN DRUM, 1979) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder  (ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, 1974).

This New Cinema produced some great films and some great actors and directors. The most prolific was Fassbinder, who was openly gay, highly political, very intelligent, and an obsessive worker who completed 44 projects as a director, and acted in 30 others, between 1966 and 1982. His work was taboo-breaking and usually done quickly. His personal life was quite self-destructive; his professional life extremely disciplined. Fassbinder remarked in interviews that he – a young German – didn’t know anything about the Holocaust until he went to theatre school in the mid-1960s. Nazi atrocities had been kept a secret from his generation, he said (Fassbinder was born in 1945, the year the War ended. He died, of a drug overdose, at the age of 37). In 1975 he made a film about a young hustler who is ruined by false friends after he wins the lottery. Like all his movies, FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (Germany, 1975) is a melodrama. Fassbinder wrote and directed it, and played the title role.

We watch Fassbinder, as Fox, trying to raise money for that fatal lottery ticket.

The Dutch, or Netherlands, industry is small compared to the other film industries we’ve discussed, and reliant on state support. The Netherlands Film Fund was established in 1957 and the Netherlands Film Academy in 1958. The best-known Dutch director is Paul Verhoeven, that former mathematics student from our Kurosawa documentary, who also attended the Film Academy. In the 1970s Verhoven had a series of popular hits, at home and abroad, including TURKISH DELIGHT (Netherlands, 1973) and SOLDIER OF ORANGE (Netherlands, 1977). He was for some years an A-list Hollywood action director. Rutger Hauer, star of both films, also emigrated to Hollywood: we saw him in BLADE RUNNER.

Marleen Gorris studied drama at university in Amsterdam and Birmingham, England. Her first feature was A QUESTION OF SILENCE (Netherlands, 1982), which tells the story of three women who kill a shopkeeper and their progress through the legal system. It is worthy of your attention. A QUESTION OF SILENCE  was a low-budget drama made with state funding. Gorris wrote the script for ANTONIA’S LINE (Netherlands, 1995) in 1988, and shot it in 1994. It was her fourth feature film. With a bigger budget – around $4 million – funding came from the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain. By the mid-1980s multi-national productions like this were becoming the norm, in the absence of money from a Hollywood studio. ANTONIA’S LINE is set in Holland but was shot in Belgium, partially because the location was very specific, and difficult to find, but also because Belgian film support could go into the budget.

Margaret Matheson, who headed Bard Entertainments after the demise of Zenith, provided the British share of the budget. Producers who had made pre-sales of their pictures could also take these sales agreements to the bank, and – in theory – get a loan against them. Asmik Ace was the Japanese distributor, and so the value that pre-sale could be added to the overall budget. It was a complicated way of making films, but this mix of partnerships, state subsidies, and pre-sales funded most mid-range independent pictures outside the US, until the financial crash of 2008.

In the case of ANTONIA’S LINE, we are fortunate. This is a complex story, spanning several generations, demanding a reasonable budget. As a feature film about a powerful woman and her dynasty, it is original in its conception and unique in its execution. Gorris is currently working on the bio-picture of James Barry, a 19th century Englishwoman who passed as a man so as to attend medical school, and – in due course – became the Inspector General of British Army Hospitals, and a health reformer.


European Film Continued … a lecture by Tod Davies

My principal interest is story – how it reflects, informs, and can change culture. Film, as a communal experience, resembles a group activity like the Mass. It is the ultimate art form, collaborative, despite the myth of the “hero director”. A good piece of art says something about your world, and about how it can be changed. I see art as a ladder by which we climb to become more autonomous people. The first clip I’ll show is from RULES OF THE GAME (France, 1939). Its director, Jean Renoir, was the son of Auguste Renoir, an an Impressionist painter. He intended this film as an entertaining romantic comedy. Instead it was detested by the audience, which literally tore up the theater at its first screening. RULES OF THE GAME was banned by the French government as “it would have an undesirable effect on the young.”

In the hunting scene from RULES OF THE GAME we see a group of bored, upper-class French men and women killing rabbits and pheasants driven to them by “beaters”. The animals have no chance and are massacred in a way which undoubtedly recalled the killing fields of the First World War, and anticipated the War to come, along with the collapse of French resistance when the Nazis invaded. It is both a picture of French culture, and, although Renoir did not intend this when making the film, a critique of it. When the film was restored and re-released in the 1950s, it was considered a classic.

Ingmar Bergman wrote THE SEVENTH SEAL (Sweden, 1957) in 1953, in the aftermath of World War Two and a year after the first Hydrogen Bombs were tested. It was highly regarded by critics who saw it as a masterpiece “about the Middle Ages.” But its is clearly about much more than that, as we see in the scene near the end, where the Knight and his friends meet Death in their castle. His film SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (Sweden, 1955) was also highly regarded, and re-made at least twice (THE SEVENTH SEAL was also frequently referenced and parodied – even in an episode of The Muppets). We watch a clip in which a mother and daughter talk. Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Probably not, think some, though I disagree—the women in this scene are talking about Life in general…not about a storyline centered around a male character.

The three criteria of the Bechdel Test (popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For) are 1) the film have two or more women in it, 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.

What is the purpose of the Bechdel Test? Is it a test of a film’s feminism, or of its more global humanist perspective? What do you think?

Human values are the most important things which films—all art– can support. Vittorio deSica’s A BRIEF VACATION (Italy, 1973) is the story of a working-class woman who supports a family of worthless adults and three children. We watch the opening scene, and, after she discovers she has tuberculosis, a scene in which she and three wealthier and more mobile women drive to a concert. The film tells the story of her awakening (sickness being the holiday of the poor), and of her return to her dire family.

(Alex note: the film is greatly marred by the use of a blurry star filter, which gives it the look of a TV commercial. How could the director of BICYCLE THIEVES go for such a corny effect, which – while it might help the idealized sanitorium sequences – works against the working-class realism of the opening scenes? DeSica’s GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINI (Italy, 1970) is similarly glossified. Imagine BICYCLE THIEVES shot through that star filter and you will realize what a bad thing this is.)

The producer of A BRIEF VACATION was Arthur Cohen, for whom I worked on two occasions. The second time was when Arthur optioned a script I had written for Charles Burnett to direct. Arthur was a master at gaming the Academy Awards. He won four of them, all for Best Foreign Film, sometimes for films that weren’t very good, by a strategy of sending videotapes of his films to all Academy members and by throwing lavish dinners for them. Charles and I were summoned to appear at one of these dinners – a small event for 200 Academy voters, at which 200 chocolate soufflees were served. Charles remarked to me, “With the money Arthur paid for this dinner, you and I could have made three films.”

Our last clip is from THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (France, 1972). It was directed by Luis Buñuel, who as you know was a Surrealist. The Surrealists weren’t – initially – manufacturing art to make money. They were trying to change the world via new ways of seeing. I saw DISCREET CHARM the day that it first came out. I was still in high school, and my friend and I found it hilarious — but we were the only people laughing in the entire cinema. Next day the reviews came out, declaring the film a hilarious comedy. We went back and saw it again on the weekend, and the entire audience was laughing. The reviews had told them what to think about the film.

In DISCREET CHARM a group of upper-middle-class people constantly try to eat dinner, but never can. Behind their veneer, they are really cocaine smugglers, importing the drugs from the “Republic of Miranda” in diplomatic bags. Like most of Buñuel’s films, DISCREET CHARM has a “yes-but” structure.

ANTONIA’S LINE – like these other European pictures – was a ground-breaking film. It showed a new way of looking at things — not about heroic male activity, but the history of a long line of women. It deals with the restorative nature of family, and the joy of sex, for all ages.


Documentary Film

What is a documentary? It is a constructed factual record, as opposed to a drama. What takes place in a documentary is theoretically true. How does it differ from journalism, which is also – in theory – the practice of honestly reporting true events? Perhaps in the way that a news report differs from a history book. A news report – journalism – is immediate, and – in theory – seeks to report accurate facts, as soon after the event as possible. A history book is deeper information: much longer than a news report, able to access more information from a greater variety of sources, and to provide analysis and context – plus footnotes and a bibliography – which news reporting leaves out.

Both a news report and a history book claim to be true. But, as we know, a selective presentation of facts can distort them, can leave things out, can stack the deck in favour of an agenda. In the case of history books, there is Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, which seeks to present American history through the eyes of ordinary people, rather than political and economic elites. And there is Schweikart and Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, which presents an uplifting view of American imperium and exceptionalism. Both deal with the same country, the same planet, and the same sets of military and economic facts: yet they reach opposite conclusions.

So, with documentary films and television. They have greater depth than news reports, and bigger budgets, more screen time, and more time for production. But when a documentary is made, it’s made for a reason – and that reason is to convince you of  something that the filmmaker (or his/her employer) believes. This doesn’t mean there is no truth! There is truth, just as there is fact, and opinion. It is a fact that you and I are here in this room now. It is my opinion that CU’s is one of the ten best film programs in the United States. It is the truth that we are essentially kind, and that we must respect each other, else the wheels of civilization cease to turn.

So journalism isn’t absolute truth. It’s a narrative, constructed by someone, selecting some facts, deselecting others, manipulated by the camera, by the presenter or the voice-over, by the editor, by the addition of graphics, logos, visual effects, and emphatic music, by the Monoform. A documentary film is a larger version of the same. Perhaps the difference between news reporting and a documentary film is unconcealed advocacy. If a newspaper or on-line report seems deliberately slanted, or noticeably biased, we consider that bad journalism. Whereas a documentary film seeks to put information before us which will open us up to, or convince us of, a particular point of view.

This doesn’t mean that every documentary film is raw propaganda. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (France, 2005) was a hugely popular nature documentary about emperor penguins in the Antarctic. It isn’t political propaganda, but it certainly has a point of view: that these penguins are fascinating, and a great subject for year-long shoot in arduous circumstances. Which indeed they were: this was the second-highest-grossing documentary in American film history: it cost $8 million to shoot, and made $127 million at the international box office.

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS – in its American edition – uses the format of a third-person, male, voice-over narrator: in the original French version, there were two first-person narrators, one female, one male, narrating from the perspective of the penguins. The American version was the classic documentary form: images, and an authoritative, third-person voiceover. In the last couple of decades documentaries have increasingly employed a first-person on-camera presenter: the personality-driven documentary. Foremost as a documentary director/writer/presenter is Michael Moore. His film BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (USA, 2002) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It deals with gun violence, institutionalized violence, and a media-generated climate of fear – all serious subjects, to say the least. Statistically, it’s a fact that there are more gun-related deaths in the United States than in most other countries. But Moore also took positions on foreign policy and gun ownership and freedom of speech with which certain people disagreed. A Minneapolis conservative, Michael Wilson, became the writer/director/presenter of his own anti-Michael Moore documentary, MICHAEL MOORE HATES AMERICA (USA, 2004).

In his film, Wilson interviews another conservative commentator, Dinesh D’Souza, who was the writer/director/presenter of the anti-Obama documentary, OBAMA’S AMERICA: 2016 (USA, 2012). In it, footage of the writer/director/presenter visiting his father’s grave is juxtaposed with a “dramatic recreation” of young Obama visiting his father’s grave. Clearly, documentaries can be entirely partisan. They can play fast and loose with facts. They can tell outright lies, especially via “dramatic recreation”. Documentaries are advocacy. Even when – like the short documentary COLLATERAL MURDER – they consist of largely unedited footage of a crime scene, that footage gets framed, repeated, zoomed-in on, contextualized by titles and described by a voice-over narrator. Personally I am distrustful of the on-camera presenter. I do not wish to see Michael Moore, or Dinesh D’Souza, or Morgan Spurlock, though I am interested in the subjects of their films. In a documentary I prefer seemingly genuine footage, edited without panache, assisted by graphs and pie charts and an informative voiceover, and no music, thank you very much. I know this too is an illusion of objectivity. All documentaries, all edited films, are constructs, based on the selection of material, reflecting someone’s point of view.

But I seriously question the necessity or value of some guy, on screen, “helping me through it.” I also distrust documentaries which have a “writer” credit. Documentary films should be the result of the material which the filmmaker has gone out and shot. This cannot be entirely predictable. The idea that you can write a script for a documentary, in advance, and then shoot footage to fit it, seems to me deeply suspect. I have directed documentaries, and made lists of interview subjects, of people to talk to, of places to shoot. But I will not take a “writer” credit on a documentary, since prior to the shoot, I don’t know what the interviewees are going to say, nor what revelations the finished film will contain.

There are also documentaries which take a more original – even experimental – approach to their subject, such as Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQATSI (USA, 1982). In the Hopi language this word means “life out of balance”, and Reggio uses original images and a musical score by Philip Glass to convey this theme, on a world-wide scale, with no voiceover or dialogue of any kind. Another fine documentary with an experimental approach is the Taviani brothers’ CAESAR MUST DIE (Italy, 2012). This deals with a stage production of Shakespeare’s play within a maximum security prison; but it isn’t limited to rehearsals and the show — instead the play takes place throughout the prison, involving guards and personal animosities among the inmates — which have clearly been planned beforehand, and rehearsed.

Some documentaries don’t shoot original footage. Instead they assemble existing material, perhaps of historical events, so as to tell their story. The Ken Burns TV documentaries about the Civil War, baseball and jazz follow this format, as does the samizat documentary LOOSE CHANGE (USA, 2005). The feature documentaries we’ve considered here were not cheap. PENGUINS cost $8 million, COLOMBINE $4 million, OBAMA’S AMERICA $2.5 million, KOYAANISQATSI $2.5 million as well. LOOSE CHANGE was assembled from 9/11 TV news footage for an initial cost of $2,000. Since its premise was incendiary, it received little publicity and no TV sales, and was literally passed from hand to hand on easily-copied DVDs. Apparently 100,000 DVDs were circulated in this way. I’ve witnessed several people exchanging copies.

Since the first edition of LOOSE CHANGE, there have been three others, in 2006, 2007, and 2009, all of which alter the details but retain the thesis of the film – that the 9/11 atrocities were an “inside job”. The film also grew and shrank as it developed. The 2005 version ran for sixty minutes. The 2007 edition was two hours and nine minutes long. The 2009 version is 1 hour 38 minutes long. LOOSE CHANGE in all its forms became a phenomenon via word of mouth, internet post and hand-to-hand circulation of DVDs. Only after it became “the first Internet blockbuster” (according to Vanity Fair) did LOOSE CHANGE receive mention in the mainstream media, some TV screenings, and an “official” DVD release.

LOOSE CHANGE is a “classic” documentary which relies on a mix of found footage, interviews with “experts”, and a male, voice-over narration which ties everything together. One of its later DVD iterations offers the option of turning off the music, something all documentary and narrative films should perhaps try! Emphatic soundtrack music, stimulating emotion or suggesting links where there are none, is one of the egregious elements of the Monoform, and it would be fascinating to see how many films can “stand up” and retain the audience’s interest, without the music.

Speaking of the Monoform brings us to Peter Watkins, whose Notes on the Media Crisis use that word to describe the problem of one all-pervasive, agitated style of storytelling. Watkins, in the 1960s, was one of Britain’s most promising young filmmakers. Unfortunately, he made a film for the BBC which got him blacklisted by British television. That film, made in 1965, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Picture in 1967. But it isn’t a documentary! THE WAR GAME (UK, 1965) is a dramatic narrative with a professional crew and amateur cast, made in the voice-over documentary style. Its subject is what would might to south-east England in the event of a “limited” nuclear war.

The Government already knew what was likely to occur. In 1955 it had set up the Strath Committee to consider the implications of thermonuclear warfare for Britain.

“The [Strath R]eport showed in graphic detail the kind of destruction and casualties Britain could expect even from a limited thermonuclear attack on the country. If only 10 bombs were dropped on UK cities, the result would be ‘utter devastation’ with up to 12 million deaths, including 3 million from radiation. There would also be a further 4 million serious casualties which would swamp the medical facilities available. Half of Britain’s industrial capacity would be destroyed, the distributive system would break down, utilities would be severely dislocated, water and food would be contaminated, leaving the 40 million survivors living in siege conditions. The Report found it impossible to predict whether Britain could recover, with the social and economic fabric of the country destroyed.”
(John Baylis, Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy 1945-1964, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, pg. 190)

The British political mandarins didn’t know what to do with the Strath Report, so they ignored it, and carried on testing and stockpiling nuclear bombs. Watkins’ fake documentary was an attempt to share with the television-viewing public what the government already knew, and had kept secret — that nuclear war might break out by accident, and if it did, what the consequences could be.

We watch THE WAR GAME. 47 minutes in length, commissioned by the BBC, banned by the BBC for twenty years.

Additional reading: Peter Watkins on THE WAR GAME here.

A Kurosawa Documentary: THE LAST EMPEROR

I’ll take advantage of our documentary focus this week to revisit Kurosawa. Kurosawa wasn’t a documentary maker, but he has been the subject of numerous books and several documentaries, including Chris Marker’s A.K. (France, 1985), a film about the making of RAN, which the New York Times called “singularly superficial.”

I made one of these documentaries, which someone has kindly posted on youtube here. I’ll tell you a little of its production history, after which we can talk about it, especially what its flaws are, and how it might have been better. It’s called KUROSAWA: THE LAST EMPEROR, and it was made for British television in 1999.

Like many film directors, I was invited to Japan to promote some of the feature films I made, and to attend film festivals. My hosts were very kind, and always asked me, is there anyone you would like to meet while you are here? I would answer, Kurosawa! And they would laugh, because all the visiting film directors said this, and Kurosawa was very hard to meet. Instead I met Ishiro Honda, the director of the Godzilla films, who by coincidence had been a schoolmate of Kurosawa, and worked on the visual effects of his later films.

Then, in 1998, Kurosawa died. I was able to persuade a British TV network, Channel 4, to pay for a documentary about his work. It was to fit an hour time slot, in other words, i.e. in Universal Clock terms, 49 minutes. Now, Kurosawa directed thirty features, perhaps half of which are thought of as classics, as amazing films. How do you tell the story of a master of the cinema, a prolific creator of brilliant works, in 49 minutes?

Well, you can’t. You really can’t. This was a documentary for national TV broadcast in Britain, to be shown by the IFC in the US, as well. It was unusual in that it contained a large amount of foreign language material: clips and interviews in Japanese. Foreign languages were rare on British TV by 1999, so this was an unusual opportunity to hear foreign voices, and to turn unsuspecting TV viewers on to Akira Kurosawa. We could never do his life’s work justice in so short a time, but we could show good clips from some of his films, and give them some context.

We proposed the interviews with film directors in order to give the project a little more “star power” for the financiers. Francis Coppola and John Woo and Bernardo Bertolucci were better known to them, than Tasuya Nakadai or Teruyo Nogami. But obviously Nakadai and Nogami were essential to the story.

Speaking of Ms. Nogami, if you are interested in Kurosawa, or Japanese cinema, or filmmaking in general, you should read her book, Waiting on the Weather. She reveals some fascinating facts about the post-war Japanese cinema. Just as Hollywood in the late 1940s and 1950s blacklisted communists, and alleged communists, so did the Japanese film industry (she is also thoughtful about context, pointing out this happened the same year as the Korean War began). In Japan, the blacklist was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers till occupying Japan.

“In May [1950] Toho dismissed 1,300 people from its payroll. General MacArthur’s official notice of a purge of Communist elements quickly took effect nationwide, and in September, Daiei also sent out pink slips to thirty people. Meanwhile, another 29 members of the film industry previously purged as war criminals were now happily “de-purged,” and they returned to work one after another. It was interesting to see the two groups switch places.”  (pg. 93)

Ms. Nogami also reports that in the 1950s methamphetamine was legal in Japan, and how the studio supplied it free to crews who worked without sleep for days at a time; she is also a gifted illustrator and the first page of our reading from her book shows her pen-and-ink drawing of the speed guy, carrying his tray.

One of the difficulties documentary filmmakers encountered in trying to make films about Kurosawa was Toho. The studio was famously intransigent, demanding very high prices for clip licenses to Kurosawa films, or simply refusing to grant a license. Other documentaries had been turned away by Toho. We were successful because Toho was making a film based on one of Kurosawa’s unmade scripts, AME AGARU / AFTER THE RAIN (Japan, 1999) and wanted us to promote that film in our documentary. This certainly worked for us since AME AGARU was crewed by various Kurosawa veterans, including the producer, Masato Hara, cinematographer Shoji Ueda, production designer Yoshiro Muraki, costume designer Kazuko Kurosawa, and Ms. Nogami. We were able to interview most of them, on the set of the film.

Though it doesn’t come across in our film, but from what I know of Toho, part of Kurosawa’s genius was his ability to deal with a big, powerful, sometimes abusive financial entity, for so long, and to make such great films for them.

In her section titled Script Supervisor, Ms. Nogami writes: “The director calls, ‘Action!’ and the camera rolls. The assistant director brings down the hinged stick on top of the clapperboard with a loud bang, and makes himself scarce. The actors go into motion and say their lines…” What is wrong here? Surely the order is wrong – usually the camera rolls, the slate is done, and then the director calls, ‘Action’. Not in this case. Ms. Nogami is writing about post-war Japanese cinema. There was an economy of great scarcity, and hundreds of feet of 35mm film could be saved if the director called ‘Action’ before the camera rolled. After the Second World War, original cinemas appeared out of economies of scarcity in Europe, too. Some of that we shall see next week.

What are the weaknesses of my documentary? Some students pointed out that they would like to see more of Kurosawa himself (who is talked about, but only seen at the very end). The music, particularly that which plays over Kurosawa’s childhood friend, Senkichi Taniguchi, was rightly criticized for its sentimentality. I confessed to disrespect for one of our interviewees, Donald Richie, whom I contradict in a voiceover narration. Richie called me on this, and he was quite right to do so, since it is wrong to take advantage of the “disembodied voice” of the director in this way.

What are its virtues? It is not an entirely heroic portrayal (dealing with his drunkenness, his rage, and his suicide attempt); it gives the audience an opportunity to see and hear from his closest collaborators and friends (in particular, the actors and Ms. Nogami); and the last shots of his humble grave site show his place in Japanese society. As Taniguchi-san said, Kurosawa was of lower middle-class origins, and to these, in death, he returned.

Further reading: Teruyo Nogami, Waiting on the Weather, Stone Bridge Press, 2001

Experimental Film

This week’s subject is “Alternatives to Dramatic Narrative.” Most of the films we look at in Intro to Film are dramatic features – whether they’re genre pictures, animations, or prestige studio films. In a critical studies course, most of the films you see are likely to be feature-length dramatic narratives. But there are other types of motion picture: KOYAANISQATSI, in addition to being a documentary, is also an experimental film.

What is an experimental film? As we know it today, it is an artistic practice with its origins in European avant-garde creative movements, in particular the Surrealists. Today you might watch an experimental film in the cinema, or in a gallery, or on your phone. At the outset, experimental films were shot in 35mm and screened in cinemas, fully-fledged rivals of conventional narratives. The first silent Surrealist films were experimental films, and vice versa. UN CHIEN ANDALOU / THE ANDALUSIAN DOG (France, 1929), employed professional actors and technicians, and was made in a studio. Yet its narrative structure and its imagery were entirely original, based on Buñuel and Dalí’s dreams and their unique approach to screenwriting:

In his autobiography, Buñuel describes their writing process: “UN CHIEN ANDALOU… came about from an encounter between two dreams. When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali’s house in Figueras, I told him about a dream I’d had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he’d seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he’d had the previous night. ‘And what if we started right there and made a film?’ he wondered aloud.

“Despite my hesitation, we soon found ourselves hard at work, and in less than a week we had a script. Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explantation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why. The amazing thing was that we never had the slightest disagreement; we spent a week of total identification.

” ‘A man fires a double bass,’ one of us would say.

” ‘No,’ replied the other, and the one who’d proposed the idea accepted the veto and felt it justified. On the other hand, when the image proposed by one was accepted by the other, it immediately seemed luminously right and absolutely necessary to the scenario.”
(Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, pp. 103-104)

Buñuel and Dalí followed this with another Surrealist film, this one a talkie: L’AGE D’OR / THE GOLDEN AGE (France, 1930), a longer, even more experimental film which outraged the far right wing, who rioted in the Paris cinema where the film played. It too is essential viewing, as are Buñuel’s later narrative features, which inject Surrealist elements into Mexican, French, and Spanish family melodramas.

After UN CHIEN ANDALOU we screen MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (USA, 1943), by Maya Deren — the first woman director whose work we will have shown. She shares the credit on the film with Alexander Hammid, to whom she was then married. Like many Hollywood creators, Deren was a refugee, whose family had fled anti-semitic pogroms in Ukraine, and settled in New York. Her father died in 1943, and with some of her modest inheritance Deren purchased a used 16mm Bolex camera, with which she made this film. We still have that camera, and you can use it to make your films. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON was originally silent; she added a music track composed by her third husband, Teiji Itô, in 1952.

Bruce Conner was an American experimental filmmaker who worked with found footage, creating montages from stock footage, other filmmakers’ trims, and film of television footage. We screen his short film REPORT (USA, 1963-67), which is a meditation on the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy, who had been murdered in Dallas, in 1963.

(Warning. REPORT is one of those films that has flickery, flash shots in quick succession. If you are suceptible in any way to fast, flickery images, you may wish to avoid this film.)

Our last screening is LAST DAYS IN A LONELY PLACE (USA, 2007), directed by the University of Colorado’s Professor Phil Solomon. The title refers to a Film Noir directed by Nicholas Ray, IN A LONELY PLACE (USA, 1950), and repurposes the Noir imagery of the Grand Theft Auto as a homage to Phil’s teacher, filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and a memorial to a dead friend. CU was also the home of Stan Brakhage, another highly-regarded American experimentalist. Experimental film is a specialty of the CU Film Studies program.

Further Reading: Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, Vintage Books, 1983