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!