Preserving Cultural Cinema while the World Moves On…
Art Cinema: Where Next? th9 October, 1999, ICA
By Any Means Necessary: Getting Cultural Cinema onto the Big Screen. th13 Nov, 1999, LUX (London Film Festival).
Richard Wright, November, 1999.
(Published in: Filmwaves, no 10, Winter 2000).
These days when it seems impossible to get outside the front door without falling over a film
crew, the number of new films being made is equalled only by the number of seminars and
conferences charting this groundswell of activity. Two recent events attempted to navigate
their way through the minefield of competing terms like art cinema, cultural cinema,
independent cinema, underground cinema and so on. In doing so their implicit aim was to
delineate what it is that mainstream cinema, commercial cinema or Hollywood cinema lacks
that these alternative film practices are intending to make up for, and perhaps even more
importantly, if these films are so culturally valuable then why it is so difficult to distribute them
and to reach an audience.
It is traditional for these kind of events to start pessimistically and these two were no
exceptions. “Art Cinema” revealed that the new cinema multiplexs were planning to
marginalise art films further by having separate entrances for the art house screens, and “By
Any Means Necessary” began with pre-publicity stating than 70% of films in the London Film
Festival would not reach cinema screens in the UK due in part to the fact that distributors
prepared to take on “cultural films” had all but dried up. It is also traditional at these events for
there to be at least some attempt to define what is “art cinema” or “cultural cinema”, and at
the “By Any Means Necessary” seminar at least, this attempt converged surprisingly quickly
onto a working definition. This was that cultural films are films which are made for intentions
other than just to make money - they have other cultural values. But this definition also
reflected the differing focus of the two seminars – “By Any Means Necessary” concentrated
squarely on the distribution and exhibition of films, and the limitations of this definition became
clearer when some of the panelists tried to expand it. Pierre Menahem of the sales agency
Celluloid Dreams proposed that art films were the films that distributors didn’t want and
Lawrence Garnall from The Feature Film Company declared that art films were the films that
didn’t make money, and that if they did happen to make money then their cultural status
tended to diminish proportionately.
Lying behind much of these discussions is always the uncomfortable thought that if the
cinematic experience provided by the art film is really that important then why aren’t people
queuing up to see them in droves? Can we really explain this through some kind of
conspiracy to prevent art films reaching the screen or will they always be unpopular? In fact
cinema going, like all other forms of popular culture, possesses a social dynamics which
makes it a product of complex forces. For example, Theodore Adorno liked to point out that
the reason that the working classes loved the easy escapism of mass media was that
because their daily lives were so much harder than the intelligentsias they had to have some
form of emotional release just to get through the week with their sanity intact. According to
this view a cultural elite became the guardians of cultural values that the lower classes would
never be able to appreciate under the prevailing social conditions. But like many such
theoretical approaches this merely becomes an excuse for accepting the status quo.
Practitioners need theories that put film making into a wider and more informed context but
that also enable them to move forward. Shouldn’t we expect some flexibility in peoples
viewing habits – like finding the point where escapism meets imagination, where spectacle
meets shock, where feeling meets thinking?
As the day wore on at “Art Cinema”, a series of debates tried to explore the particular
differences between the commercial film and the art film. Three main positions were
discernible here as to what the role of cultural film was and why it was important to oppose its
marginalisation by the Hollywood “product”. Michel Ciment the French cinema critic most forcibly stated the idealist position. For him cultural film possesses intrinsic artistic values in contrast to Hollywood films which are designed to appeal to twelve year old American boys. In the 1960s mass film education created audiences for auteur film makers like Antonioni and Fassbinder but this programme has since been dismantled. Another argument which has almost become the de facto response when intellectuals are put in a corner and which surfaced in various guises at various points in both seminars was that of cultural diversity. We need to have a balanced film culture where mainstream and cultural films are both available and to retain opportunities for widely different approaches to film making. Lastly there is what we might call the materialist approach which was best represented by producer Keith Griffiths. Art film making is like a research and development arm of film production in which radical new ideas are allowed to be tried out. If successful they might spread and benefit the whole film industry which might otherwise stagnate for lack of inspiration.
But of course none of those positions really stand up to much scrutiny. Michel Ciment’s conservatism implies that audiences are just too thick to appreciate art and need to be brought around. But people tend to be strangely resistant to the “education” they are offered,
perhaps for the social reasons that Adorno thought he had analysed, and perhaps because they simply do not share the cultural values that they are being “taught” to admire. In fact this position is implicitly contradicted by the cultural diversity argument which presents the need to watch different films in similar terms to the need for eating a balanced diet. If the audience is given a unbiased choice of films to watch then we should witness a more even distribution of viewing figures across the different genres and forms as people mix and match to suit their different tastes and moods. Unfortunately this kind of relativism suffers from the same problems as all arguments based on these premises – it becomes difficult to talk about the
value of any particular kind of film. It is not an argument that can appeal to film makers who have particular motives and objectives for making cultural films and who are not just making them because they want to be “different” or offer an alternative for its own sake. In any case,
if all films are of equal value then why should we bother to promote cultural films at all if they are no better than any other? The diversity argument has a tendency to implode. By contrast the idea of the artist film maker as a maverick researcher exploring new cinematic aesthetics attempts to give cultural film making a specific role within the film industry. But if the value of a cultural film is that it provides a testing ground for new ideas which will eventually advance mainstream film making, then it is only valuable to the extent that it advances the interests of the dominant mainstream culture, not in itself. This is the kind of argument that a producer would make when trying to prise more money out of a commercial funding institution or company but is of limited relevance to film makers themselves. Experimentation is important but it cannot provide us with a cultural or aesthetic sense of purpose on its own.
In order to answer these questions it is necessary to be much more fearless about what we want to achieve through our film making. Do we really believe that a long panning shot has more cultural value than some fast cutting, and if so under what conditions? We must develop specifically cultural and aesthetic strategies which nevertheless pay full respect to the social and economic context in which they must realistically operate. “Dogma 95” was a bold way of addressing the first requirement but had a tendency to fight shy of the second. For this reason it now runs the risk of degenerating into a stylistic exercise exploited for publicity purposes.
The value of Hollywood films are that they are designed to have mass appeal, they are carefully crafted to meet market researched specifications. Director Mike Figgis pointed out that these rules by which mainstream films are constructed do not succeed in their purpose of attracting an audience by accident - we are now addicted to the fast cutting and film making spectacles that are used to enthral us and this condition does not seem to be reversible. But although the particular techniques that Hollywood films use tend to be identified with the aim of seducing an audience into a state of passivity, this does not preclude the possibility of incorporating these new and powerful techniques into a radically different aesthetic. The implication is that the task of cultural film making is not to preserve artistic values but to innovate and find new ones appropriate to the current times, otherwise art cinema would be defined as “the cinema that refuses to accept that the world moves on”.
This brings us naturally to the question of “new technologies”, that question that is so often mentioned but so rarely fully discussed. At the end of the “Art Cinema” seminar producer Keith Griffiths gave a rousing closing address on their importance to the future (survival?) of the art film. He reminded us that at crucial junctures in the history of the cinema the most radical cultural ideas often came from technical and scientific research. He described his experience at a recent exhibition of new media art at Cologne where he observed an excited audience getting to grips with digital image making forms that were non-narrative, visually complex and conceptually challenging as well as entertaining – all the values that art cinema
traditionally aspired to.
During the debate at the “By Any Means Necessary” seminar, a question from the audience about new technologies was postponed by the chair Bertrand Moullier until later. Incredibly, it was left until just five minutes before the end to discuss this huge area. A lady in the audience from Atom Films, one of the new online internet film distributors began to describe what her company did but was soon cut off for some closing remarks from the panel who declared that the cinema theatre would always define the most important viewing experience. At the final discussion at “Art Cinema”, I put a question (one of only two from the floor) to Keith Griffiths about his presentation but soon became aware of the fact that we seemed to be having a private conversation. As I glanced around the dwindling ICA theatre I saw the rest of the audience either gazing at the ceiling or glancing impatiently at their watches. If new technologies are really the future of cultural cinema, both in production and distribution, and I personally believe that they are, then this evidence unfortunately suggests that few members of the current cultural film community will be actively participating in that future.