Cinema Militans Lecture
by Peter Greenaway
Cinema died on the 31st September 1983 when the zapper, or the remote control, was introduced into the living-rooms of the world.
Cinema is a passive medium. It might well have fulfilled many of the expectations of an audience of our fathers and forefathers prepared to sit back, watch illusions and suspend disbelief, but I believe we can no longer claim this to be sufficient. New technologies have prepared and empowered the human imagination in new ways. There is, as we all well know, brand new audiences out there who make up not just a television generation, but a post-television generation where the characteristics of the laptop are persuasive and generate new demands and create new benchmark standards. The ideas of excessive choice, personal investigation, personal communication and huge interactivity have come a long way since September 1983, and the act of cinema has had to exist alongside and be a partner to a whole new world of multiple-media activities, which have all intrinsically metamorphosed cinema itself. Interactivity and multimedia may well be words that are too familiar anymore to be truly attended to, but they are certainly the major contemporary cultural stimulants. How will cinema cope with them, because it surely must. If the cinema intends to survive, I believe, it has to make a pact and a relationship with concepts of interactivity, and it has to see itself as only part of a multimedia cultural adventure.
Once upon a time, cinema — after avoiding the issue, refusing to encompass it, pretending that the patient was not sick and the object not broken, so why try to cure one, and mend the other? — faced and tackled and adapted itself to a new technology of sound. The long existing, world-dominant entertainment technology of the so-called silent cinema changed almost overnight, and in essence it died. And it is virtually entirely buried. Who now watches silent cinema? Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin on television, and a small minority of film enthusiasts.
Whether we are going to like it or not, the same may well soon happen to so-called sound cinema.
This is a Militans Cinema lecture. I can afford to be militant. I have been given some license to be provocative, disrespectful, irritated and angry. And militant. The terms of this platform expect it of me. And I have been given this license for a second time. Last time I tried to make a little entertainment. With pictures and projected alphabets. And a few thorns. This time I want to make a heavier polemic. With thorns. Because my complaint is that now, after 108 years of activity, we have a cinema that is dull, familiar, predictable, hopelessly weighed down by old conventions and outworn verities, an archaic and heavily restricted system of distribution, and an out-of-date and cumbersome technology.
We need to re-invent cinema.
Every medium needs to constantly re-invent itself. We need now not to put new wine in old bottles, and certainly not to put old wine in new bottles, we need to put new wine into new bottles. You are allowed to recognize the wine, which is human ingenuity and imagination, and you are permitted to recognize the bottles, which is cinema, though I am convinced we shall be needing to change that name.
Current state of the cinema’s demise.
First, a brief run through of some of the current factors we all know about cinema’s demise.
Cinema in cinemas is undoubtedly not the popular art it used to be. In the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, it is said that European families saw two films at the cinema every week. We can easily agree that you would be hard pressed to find a European family that would see cinema now in cinemas twice a year.
Statistics from the heart of the major Western film industry in Hollywood state that 75% of people see their cinema on television, 20% buy their cinema as video or DVDs, and only 5% view their cinema in places called cinemas.
In this country, I am told, the average Dutch citizen watches only two feature films in a cinema every three years.
The head of Kodak has stated that his company will not be manufacturing celluloid in 10 year’s time.
The poverty of official cinema distribution means that I cannot, and you cannot, see any film of your choice in any cinema of your choosing this afternoon, or even next week, and probably not next month, and possibly never. It is easier for me to see a minor painting by Caravaggio in a small Umbrian town than it is for me to see Kubrick’s “2001” in any cinema that would represent that film in the way it was manufactured to be presented.
Four thousand feature-potential films have been made in the U.S. every year for the last four years: 350 get some cinema distribution, 50 hit sensible distribution figures in 80 U.S. cities, lasting for about (on average) 10 days in a cinema. That is one reasonably distributed film for every week of the year. Twenty feature films a year hit the big time, 10 hit the very big time and four make it super big time. Four out of 4,000. Where do all the undistributed films end up? The usual places are “straight to video” or television, a third of them are dumped, though most filmmakers would not be so blunt as to admit it.
European newspapers were noisy in their complaints this year that the Cannes Film Festival was of poor quality, and followed it up soon after by saying that the Venice Film Festival was not much better. These two festivals are traditionally supposed to be a litmus paper to the life and health of the inventive cinema world. The reaction is no surprise. There is precious little invention in the cinema world, because traditional cut-and-paste, narrative, illusionistic cinema has had its day. We must move on. We must re-invent cinema.
It is a fact that there are more and more film festivals instituted every year, programming greater and greater numbers of festival films which are never seen again, films which have no hope of any cinema distribution; there is less and less informed film criticism in our newspapers, fewer and fewer serious programs about cinema on television, a fall in readership of film magazines, and greater and greater creation of media courses in the universities of the Western world. Confusing and apparently contradictory statistics? Well not necessarily. It would seem that something very similar happened at the decline of opera and classical dance as major cultural forces — although happening over a longer space of time — an excess of attention as the quality and proliferation declined, a propping up of the institutions by the dismayed, that the energy had evaporated, and a deterioration of quality and insight as the means of production apparently seemed easier.
Mallarme suggested that all the world is created to be put into a book. He might now say that all the world is created to be put into a film. Everyone wants to make movies. It is a sign of overkill and a state of exhaustion, resulting in banality and repetition. And we have arrived at a monoculture, single model of cinema all over the world. Hollywood product is made in Sydney, Tokyo, Shanghai, Rotterdam and London, and especially in London.
Perhaps we can say that the cut-and-paste, narrative, chronologically plotted, illustrated-text, illusionistic cinema has played itself out. If you believe it is still alive. Consider that they say a slow-moving, herbivorous and not very bright dinosaur, shot in the head on a Monday, is brain dead for a week, and can manage to wag its tail until the Friday, before the last breath leaves its body. Friday will soon be upon us.
However, however, however, all of which is no great cause for alarm or despondency, tears, sadness or nostalgia, but probably for jubilation, because it is a situation fitting to a recognizable pattern, and the exhaustion invariably coincides with rejuvenation. We should rejoice that the dinosaur is soon to be a fossil. We await those small creatures in the forest floor who will soon take over the world.
We have every right to be optimistic about the future as long as we are prepared to acknowledge “cinema is dead, long live cinema.” We can believe in the phoenix.
A medium is governed and shaped and perceived by the characteristics of its technology. The aesthetic-technology of cinema has lasted 108 years — but if cinema essentially expired on the apocryphal 31st September 1983 — then, from 1895 to 1983, is 88 years, the length of three generations. It would seem that the life of many aesthetic-technologies might fit into an exaggerated three generation lifespan, covering the activities of invention, consolidation and then a throwing away in anticipation of a new cycle. The prime time of fresco-painting technology in the Renaissance spans Giotto, the inventor of the primary technologies, through Michelangelo, the consolidator, to the restless Carracci brothers who experimented with oil-based techniques in association with the wet plaster, and essentially corrupted its primacy to make way for a significant change. The basic fresco characteristics existed before this cycle, and persisted after it, but the major significant work in the medium is created within this span of time.
Similar arguments can be put forward for the subsequent painting technologies of egg tempera painters on wood panels — van Eyck to Durer — and the first and second waves of post-baroque canvas painters — Bernini, Velasquez, El Greco — and then the painters of artificial light — Caravaggio and de la Tour, David, Goya and Delacroix. Cinema has responded to the theory very well. If you are a European, Eisenstein invents the language, Fellini consolidates the language and Godard throws it away. If you are American, then the cycle might read Griffith, Orson Welles and Cassavetes.
In all cases, the medium might continue wagging its tail, but in homage to, or in admiration of, a tradition, or to further mine fields already strongly prospected, or simply to enjoy the well-oiled machineries of production structures and studio facilities, there will be revisionist filmmakers, as in the 1973 to 1986 period — Coppola, Kubrick, Scorsese working the Fellini-Welles vein — and Woody Allen, the Coen brothers and Wenders working the Godard vein, and then the post-revisionists of the late ’80s, further trading, pastiching and homaging like Tarantino, Stone and Scott.
Running parallel to the last throws of the old medium, the technology changes — out of a desire for change itself, or because the bending of the medium creates various breaking points, or out of a wish to repudiate the past, or because the stretching of the previous technology generates huge improvements along the avenues of cheapness, swiftness, greater accessibility and greater ease of handling, and sometimes even because of the introduction of a brand-new base-energy source, which in the case of the moving picture industry, as in music, has been first magnetic tape, and then, as in so many other fields, the full explosion of the digital revolution.
If this theory of the three generations of invention, consolidation and rejection will not suit your perception of the progress of 108 years of cinema, cinema as an entire medium has always been slow and sluggish and resistant to vigorous change. Even a well-respected cinema director like Scorsese basically makes the same films, structurally and narratively, as Griffith, the founder of narrative in cinema. There are better emulsions, smarter equipment and superior publicity, but the same structures with beginnings, middles and ends, moving from a position of negative behavior to positive behavior on a largely Christian morality program, have not changed; revenge ordained and completed, wrongs righted, retribution obtained, success rewarded, innocents exonerated, finishing with happy closures — these are structures that are repeated over and over and over again — and they are structures that have previously been invented, employed and elaborated by the 19th century literary giants, Dickens, Balzac, Zola, Tolstoy.
When we are brought to realize that most cinema is illustrated text, we then have a further demoralization, to discover that of all these texts illustrated by cinema, few, if any, have advanced to even the early years of literary excitements of the 20th century. None, for example appear to have approached James Joyce.
The distances of language change and development traveled in cinema are slight compared to what has happened in the other media in the same 1895 to 1995 period. Consider the changes that have occurred from 1895 to 1995 in music — Strauss to Stockhausen via Schoenberg, or Debussy to Reich via John Cage; in literature — from Hardy and Mann to Borges and Perec. And getting closer and closer to cinema, consider that, in the theater, Chekov is alive in 1895, and by 1995, we have experienced Osborne and Pinter, Brecht and Beckett. And closer still to the ideals of a pictorial cinema, in painting, van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, Malevich and Klee are all alive and well and kicking in 1895, and we have now have traveled to Warhol and Keifer via Matisse and Duchamp, Picasso, Rothko and Jasper Johns. It is difficult to imagine such changes in characteristics, language, attitude, perspective and immense plurality, in the march of cinema from 1895 to 1995.
Is this such an unfair comparison?
Consider the huge energies, the vast sums of money, the one-time large public audiences, the huge crowds of manufacturers and the sheer number of movies made throughout this century of years — with these factors doesn’t it seem we could have expected greater developmental thrust and pull and range of practice?
However, it is now too late. The game is over. We have lost our opportunity. We must roll over and start again. And we can.
I believe the last time we saw radical cinema-language change and novel cinematic invention was with the German cinema in the mid and late seventies — Herzog, Straub, Fassbinder and the early Wenders. After that, there has been little radical experiment and radical invention. Maybe there could not have been anymore, because by 1980, television had finally won the battle for the moving image experience.
After 1980 there is little evidence of investigative finances being put into the cinema media. The money, and the energy that always follows money, was being placed elsewhere, and the really interesting inventive minds of the moving image went to places where life was more stimulating — video experiments, Web-mastering, multimedia investigations, video clips, animation — the feature film was no longer the vehicle for major synthesis and change, the all-embracing symphonic form that encapsulated the total vocabulary. We can easily believe that Bill Viola is worth 10 Scorseses.
However important the factors are of social, political, economic and cultural pressure — the absolute strength of the medium is in its aesthetic, its relationship of language to content, its relevance to now, the ability to stimulate and entrance, provide stimulus to dream, legitimize imagination, set fire to possibilities, indicate what happens next, encourage wholehearted participation — and I would say — encourage wholehearted participation to the point of the panic of overexcitement. I believe cinema as we know it now, simply fails to do this. And I believe this, in some good measure, is due to four tyrannies.
The four tyrannies
In association with the cinema celebrations of 1995, with some considerable anxiety and some deep disenchantment about contemporary cinema, I planned an investigation into film language to see what about it was investigative, useful, autonomous and worthy of preservation, and, primarily, unique. What could cinema do, after a century, that no other media could do?
I constantly saw cinema as being easily deconstructed back into other media forms where what it had to say, could be said as easily and probably more forcefully and more efficiently in other ways.
We considered ten characteristics that seemed especial to cinema — light, the text, the frame, projection, props, music, scale, time, actors and the camera, and embarked on a series of citywide exhibitions, under the generic title the Stairs. We succeeded in placing a large exhibition in the streets and squares, parks and buildings of Geneva focused on the frame — erecting 100 wooden staircases across the city where a viewer was invited to climb a short flight of stairs to an eyepiece to examine a framing of the city, a wide-shot or a medium-shot or a close-up. The staircases remained in the city for 100 days, and the framings were available to all for 24 hours a day in sunshine and rain, moonlight and fog.
The scenarios of this living cinema-film of 100 viewpoints for 100 days were anything that might happen. You could watch a man take a dog for a walk. You could, if you were lucky, watch a dog bite a man. If you were exceptionally fortunate, you could watch a man bite a dog — the ordinary, the unusual and the extraordinary.
The first motive was to consider why cinema, along with all the other plastic arts, views the world within the confines of a rectangle, a parallelogram, within the boundaries of four right-angles? And when we do so indeed, what might that mean? And do we need to continue to do this, and how was the act of framing relevant to the act of filmmaking itself? And which single frame is the most relevant and is it possible to get the timing of the framing right? Was the single frame necessary, could we break it, explode it, could we re-invent it? What were the advantages and what were the disadvantages? And the most important question — was action, event and activity within the single frame separable from the single frame itself?
In 1995 we were privileged to place a second exhibition in the series in the city of Munich, and the subject was the act of projection. On the cathedral, the town hall, the opera-house, shops and shopping malls, offices, the police station, gasometers, churches and theaters, we made screen projections to simulate the essence of the cinema experience — 100 illuminated screens — pursuing a chronology of cinema history from simple black and white 1895 Lumiere projection through to color and the experimental ratios of the 1950s and ’60s, to the advent of the television ratios — 100 cinema screens alive with projected light all the hours of darkness.
This time the motive was to demonstrate the central cinema experience, the projection of light across a distance onto a framed space to be viewable simultaneously to a mass audience.
The exhibition in the series of the Stairs dedicated to props, the significance of the inanimate object in cinema — can you imagine a gangster movie without a gun, a telephone and a car, a Shakespearian feature without a skull, a dagger and a crown, Othello without Desdemona’s handkerchief — was eventually turned into an exhibition in Vienna called One Hundred Objects to Represent the World, and then into an opera of the same name that traveled the world.
No single characteristic of cinema is entirely separable from all the others, and I was beginning to see the characteristics as tyrannies, which were confining, straight-jacketing, even abusing the cinema, tyrannies that were perhaps destroying any further emancipation of the idea of the moving image in cinema. I finally saw those major tyrannies as the tyrannies of the frame, the text, the actor and the camera.
The tyranny of the text
Every film director, with precious few exceptions, has to have a text before he or she can have an image. From Spielberg to Godard, Lynch to Tarantino, Kubrick to Fassbinder. With the cinema that we have developed — though of course, it need not have happened that way — it is impossible to approach a studio or a producer with three paintings, four prints and a sketch-book of drawings, and expect to be rewarded with support to make a movie. The cinema is supposed to be an art and an industry of the image, yet we have a text-based cinema. Every film you have watched you can see the director following the text, and if you are lucky, making pictures as an after-thought. No surprise of course. We are all very sophisticated, even across all the language barriers, at making and using and receiving texts, written and spoken. Our educational systems are based on forcefully feeding the letters of the alphabet to reluctant children, and then to press home a necessity to amassing an understanding of words. As adolescents the reading procedures become more sophisticated, and as adults, continually persuaded practice, hones and refines and focuses our abilities — a systematic universal act of education in the word. You have a tongue. It will not speak comprehensively on its own, it needs training. Few, in proportion to the mass attendance at the textual altar, attend art school, design school, receive architectural training. You have an eye — can it truly see without being trained? Just because you have eyes, does that mean you can see? And if you can see, can you project and communicate your meaning indeed to those who also have had no extensive training of the eye?
Would you, could you, presume to write a sensible comprehensible letter, leave alone a novel, without undergoing intensive training in text?
It could be said that most of us suffer from considerable visual illiteracy, persuaded upon us by a text-obsessive educational insistence. Hence the reliance on the word, not the image. Derrida famously and wittily suggested that “the image always has the last word” — it is of course a false statement, the word always has the last word, and anyway isn’t a word an image?
In England and America, there is great and vigourous support for a writer’s cinema. We do not need or want or desire a writer’s cinema. We need a cinema-maker’s cinema. The cinema should not be an adjunct to the bookshop, servicing, illustrating literature.
The last three dominant significant cinema events have been “The Lord of the Rings,” a book — three books — “Harry Potter,” a book, probably eventually, four books, and “Spider-Man,” at least that is supposed to spring from a semi-visual source, a comic, but essentially an illustrated book.
In pessimistic moments, I would argue that you have never seen any cinema, all you have witnessed is 108 years of illustrated text.
The tyranny of the frame
We view all the plastic arts through a rigid frame. Since painting separated itself from architecture at the end of the Medieval period, it regulated its parameters, with very little exception, to fit four right-angles. And theater, with a proscenium arch, copied painting; opera and ballet arranged its scenarios and choreography to be seen in association with theatre’s proscenium arch stage-space, and cinema copied the theatre, and television copied the cinema, and then there are photographs squared up for painting-picture-frames and to fit the right angles of a book. This wholesale practice has become so traditional and orthodox, it is not questioned.
Retrospectively, it is the view through a window, though we are thinking now from a contemporary window point-of-view, since the major horizontal aspect window ratio of a cinema screen could not have been matched architecturally by a window much before the middle of the nineteenth century. But the analogy is important because traditional cinema insists on creating an illusionistic space to give audiences a window experience — a surveillance through a window frame out into a parallel universe connected to that which the audience physically experiences as it sits in the cinema.
There is no such thing as a frame in the natural world — it is a man-made, man-created device, a diagrammatically sharpened and regulated reaction to his own irregular horizontal view of the world bordered by the brow and the cheek-bones when the face is held rigid and the eyes kept steady. It is an ironic curiosity that the Japanese have tried to reverse the game by forcing man-devised frames into landscape design using the sea horizon as the absolute horizontal, and planting tall straight-trunked trees to make the vertical frame-lines — ironic and curious, since Oriental picture-making has steadfastly, until it came in contact with Western practices of seeing, eschewed the frame, not finding it at all necessary to use a frame to contain and shape the world.
And the frame in the cinema has ever restrictingly tightened. There used to be several aspect ratios open to a cinematographer, especially in the years of pre-standardization, and again when cinema tried to fight the effects of television with a rash of experimental ratios in the ’60s and ’70s, but now we have been steadily reduced to that most convenient of aspect ratio frames, the television frame of the ratio 1 to 1.33. And all professional film practitioners know the contortions and humiliations that cinema has had to experience to get its non-television ratio demands onto the television screen with letter-boxing, cropping, reducing, panning and scanning. Such has been this so dominant industrial practice that few television viewers are even remotely aware that they are not watching the real thing, but some particular television-convenienced version.
If the frame is a man-made device, then just as it has been created, so it can be un-created. The parallelogram can go.
The tyranny of the actor
To acknowledge and overcome the third tyranny, the tyranny of the actor, is perhaps not going to be so popular. It could be said that we delight in being tyrannised by actors. And I am going to have some difficulty in following through the premise that the cinema is not, and should not be a playground for Sharon Stone or a Sylvester Stallone or even a Nicole Kidman or a Robert de Niro, though in 108 years we have allowed and permitted it to be so. So many films are set up to create a space for an actor to perform, that it would seem sometimes that the cinema is a vehicle for their appearance alone.
There are many genres of painting in which the actor is absent, or reduced to the concept of a figure in a landscape. I am not advocating a cinema where there are no actors, where the human figure is not by inference the centre of our interest, but I will argue that the actor has to seriously share the cinematic space with other evidences of the world, has to be, in essence a figure in a landscape which is likely to give attention to space, ideas, inanimacy, architecture, light and colour and texture itself.
The legitimate supremacy of the actor in the viewing space is a characteristic of theatre, where the demands on his dominant visibility are essential to give credence to the suspension of disbelief in a patently symbolic world, but like it or not, the cinema should not be a species of recorded theatre, and the actor has to relinquish any supremacy he rightly might believe is his for the taking in the theatre.
It is of course not so familiar a condition to the actor who is led to believe by his profession that the camera should persistently centre his contribution, especially since we have created off-screens systems to excessively promote the actor and surround him with agents and managers, a sympathetic production system and a Press and publicity organisation who appear to need his public relations power. I have had actors complain that they are too much subject to the insistence of the frame, that their movements are too bounded by the demands of the composition, that they have to arrange their contribution to be subservient to a tree, a still life, a lighting space, shadows, darkness, various devices of invisibility, that I am more interested in their legs, feet, body, their given physical anatomy, the way they wear and shape their clothes, the physical space they occupy, the gestures they make, the pose they take, their weight on the floor, their relationship to a wall or a ceiling, rather than their face or their interpretation of a psychological role, or their skill at interpreting a narrative imperative. It is true I take many of my cues and precedences from painting where there are other considerations than human performance, but I believe the actor should take his contribution in association with a sense of ensemble with the world and certainly ensemble with the cinematic language. We have developed a cinema where the identification of an actor’s emotional and psychological performance is considered to be the key to an audience’s response. This is limiting, reductive and undersells the visual potential of cinematic language.
The tyranny of the camera
If the tyranny of the actor is difficult to accept, then the fourth and last tyranny is perhaps even more of a blasphemy — for it is the tyranny of the camera. We have to get rid of the camera.
The camera is a recording device. It gives us an image of the world that is mimetic, it reproduces what we put in front of it. The camera is not a painter. It has entered the cinema equation too high up the Richter scale — say at Richter six, where it would have been better to have entered at Richter zero — which of course is contradictory because there would have been nothing there, which of course is what my proposition is all about.
Two quotations. One from Picasso: “I do not paint what I see, but what I think.” The second from Eisenstein, certainly the greatest maker of cinema, a figure you can compare with Beethoven or Michelangelo, and not be embarrassed by the comparison, and there are few cinema-makers you can elevate to such heights. On his way to Mexico, Eisenstein, traveling through California, met Walt Disney, and suggested that Walt Disney was the only filmmaker because he started at ground zero, a blank screen.
The connection between the two quotations is suggestive. There is a necessity in a curious way to bypass the lazy, mimetic, passive recording eye — human or mechanical — and jump straight to the brain, the imagination, the seat of creation. And it is suggested that we have now the tools, and we can easily imagine the tools we shall have tomorrow, to make this happen. We should not want a cinema of appropriation, of mimesis, or reproduction of the known world, not even a cinema of virtual reality, but a cinema of virtual unreality.
The Renaissance contribution to the modern world in visual terms is usually couched in terms of forever and forever successfully reproducing reality. From Giotto to Masaccio, from Masaccio to Uccello, from Uccello to Raphael, from Raphael to Giorgione — you can choose your own chain of ever-rising realism.
It has been an upward success story in getting painted images to look more and more like the natural world — the gradual controlling of the technologies of chiaroscuro and scale, sculptural modelling, linear perspective, aerial perspective, anatomy, in order in the end, to reproduce what we already have around us. Is that such a success story? Should not the energies have been spent in more worthwhile, investigative pursuits, to pursue the possibilities of the inventive human imagination, probably the most complex and self-regarding phenomenon in the universe?
The real world is always going to be more real, more exciting, more terrifying, more dangerous, more appealing than the world that can be reproduced by the camera.
Should therefore cinema eschew ambitions of illusionistic recreation of the known world — its major pursuit — and attempt to manufacture the imaginative world alone?
My militant response then to the current circumstances of a dying aesthetic technology called cinema, jolted into the necessity of accepting the novelties of inter-activity and the revitalised possibilities of multimedia, is to shake out these tyrannies of the frame, text, the actor and the camera, and try to place product in the firing line of these polemics.
It is an arrogant assumption to think we can make cultural benchmarks, significant artefacts with which to measure the state of a total practice. Benchmarks, I suspect, are made only after the event. Did Dante know that he was making profound significance with “The Divine Comedy,” a work that self-confessedly suggests an attempt to unite the angels in their heavens with the stones on the road? Did the van Eyck brothers in Ghent with their triptych of the “Adoration of the Lamb,” or Michelangelo, with his view of known beliefs on the Sistine ceiling, know that they were both manufacturing works that would attempt to put everything in one place, ordered, systematic and comprehensible? Would Shakespeare and Cervantes have known that their cultural contributions would occupy the same sort of significance. And did Joyce in writing “Ulysses,” the most influential but least read of the 20th century’s novels, know that, by gathering together every known trope of narrative and storytelling and exposition of experience in words, and thereby having to invent a new sort of word exposition to realise it — did he have consciousness of the bench-mark he was making?
It maybe that the first total cinema masterpiece benchmark was Eisenstein’s “Strike,” made in 1924. From the start of cinema on the 20th December 1895 to Eisenstein’s “Strike” in 1924 is very nearly 28 years — the length of a generation. If the new post-cinema-cinema began on 31st September 1983 — until now — that is 20 years somewhere between next Tuesday and next Wednesday — we have 8 years to go to make the first masterpiece bench-mark of the new visual technologies.
The Tulse Luper Suitcases project hopes to address and answer and find, in a deeply investigative way, some answers to some of these concerns and anxieties. It certainly revolves around, and desires to exploit, interactivity and multi-media. The project is manufactured for exploitation in the cinema, on television, on one or more websites, as a serious collection of DVDs and in association with a library of books, with links to the making of theatre and opera, exhibitions and installations in museums and galleries.
To date, after 13 months of manufacture, there are three hours of highly wrought cinema material shot, edited, and hopefully to be projected on HD television, though as you will see tonight, two hours exist — because the industry is slow to take advantage of the revolution around us — on 35mm film. There are two published books, a play performed in German at the Frankfort National Theatre, and soon to be rehearsed and performed in 12 cities in Holland, and two exhibitions, one in Milan and one currently in Ghent. In the next thirteen months, there will be three new exhibitions – in England, Leipzig and Berlin, two theatre productions in Lille and Bremen, and three more hours of HD material, bringing us up to seven episodes in the 16-episode Tulse Luper saga.
The ambition is to make an integrated product viable and comprehensible in different forms for the first decade of the 21st century, that centres, as its cement and superstructure, around the life and times of its central character Tulse Luper, whose activities are multifarious, though perhaps like us all, he is a professional prisoner. Matching the atomic number of uranium, his life-history covers 92 years. He is 92 tomorrow, the 29th September.
The whole project is an attempt to make a gathering together of today’s languages, to place them alongside one another and get them to converse, and as far as cinematic language is concerned, to find ways out of the above stated tyrannies.
Considering the tyranny of the text
In the first place, though it still begs my anxious questioning of the creation of a visual medium through text, the substance of “The Tulse Luper Suitcases” was written out indeed in words, albeit with a text of some complexity that makes it looks more perhaps like a vertical and horizontal musical score than a conventional film-script.
It is not an adaptation of a book, or a play, or any phenomenon that saw light first as literature of any description. On the argument of “If it itches, scratch it” — the text therefore is much in evidence. I give you frequent doses of the text on screen.
There is a very necessary content reason for this, since it soon becomes evident that the film is happening, so to speak, as it is written, and is, in essence, the deliberate product of a writer, though quite how that shapes up, I do not want to reveal just yet, for that would give away the whole containing conceit of the thing.
Text usually shapes the cinema narrative and certainly provides the cinema dialogue. Conventional cinema seeks to conceal that written textual origin. In the Tulse Luper Suitcases there is no hiding of these origins, and the film is so full of narratives that narrative is often negated by excess, and certainly narrative is constantly interrupted and fragmented by side-bars and listings and sub-narratives, as to make conventional narrative continuity problematic.
Since it would seem text and image are a pair, often of unequal status, and there is much evidence to suggest they have co-existed in painting for much of its history – do not try to break up the unequal, uneasy marriage but seek to exploit it. Acknowledge that most of the images seen in cinema began as textual descriptions, deliberately use text as image, employ calligraphy and typography to define text as that very thing. Contemporary advertising has made of the combination of text and image, an art of its own, and cinema might do well to imitate and develop its exploits.
Considering the tyranny of the frame
Abel Gance with his film “Napoleon” in 1927 developed a three-screen projection, and intimated possible ways to use it. Wide shot, medium shot, close-up; back, front and side; landscape, portrait, still-life. To synchronise three 35mm projections in 1927 was not so easy and the technological experiment essentially stopped with Gance.
There was a wait of some forty years before the technology and thus the possibilities of the language could be resurrected. There was a spate of films in the 1980s where it became not uncommon, more than once associated with movies featuring Steve McQueen, but noticeably the device was a decoration to the narrative not substantial to it, and rarely added more than retinal excitement. Special feature events like the Tokyo Olympic Games with large sums of money to exhibitionistically flaunt, engendered essentially non-narrative multi-screen experiments, by offering only more sheer retinal stimulus and pattern-making, and such language is now the stable diet in pop concerts and video-walls, though rarely structured in other than illustrative and decorative ways.
The conventional cinema cinema still cannot perform multi-screen projection, and until such time it can and will, the single screen can suffice to be spliced, split and fragmented. Multiple screens imply a sense of choice. It is not easy to look at all screens with equal attention simultaneously, choice for major attention has to made, though those choices can be conducted and orchestrated by the director. New digital technology minimises Gance’s difficulties, though as suggested with a single screen agenda.
“The Tulse Luper Suitcases” endeavours to utilise and develop a multi-screen language in the various ways Abel Gance anticipated and certainly to take it beyond. Superb steadiness, immaculate framed edges are digitally edited on High Definition tape at increasing near real-time editing speeds. Before, during, after; past present future; fast, slow, slowest, repetitions, reprises, across screen devices of innumerable continuities, developing a language that equates more with human experience in its interactions between reality, memory and imagination.
One of the greatest potential excitements is the ability and freedom now to fashion the frame to suit the content. Very crudely, a snake travelling across the grass suggests a long horizontal frame, a giraffe, a tall vertical one. And morphing such a snake into such a giraffe can be accomplished with hands-on ease. The frame can be cut and cropped with various layers of density, overlap and metamorphosis.
Pre-Renaissance painting, having no imperatives to depict the real, played with subjective scale, and with condensed and simultaneous time, both considerations being relevant to the dictates of theological ideals.
Christ, at the Last Supper, being the most important figure at the table, was depicted physically larger than his disciples. Adam and Eve were tempted, ate the apple, plucked the fig leaves and were expelled from the Garden of Eden all in the same interconnected single space. These are expressionistic devices long explored by painting, and to a certain extent by flourishing comic-book arts, and certainly with renewed interest in the last 150 years after the long years spent pursuing the chimera of reproducing the apparent reality of the eye, real time and true scale.
The digital revolution technologies can re-explore these issues to make — to use a convenience concept-word — an animated cubism. Making for a God-like ubiquity, you can see both sides of the wall, insides and outsides, downstairs and upstairs, macrocosm and microcosm, all at the same time. The historical key markers to a philosophy of the moving image can be profitably revisited and revitalised – Muybridge sequential photography, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and Marey’s multiple-image fencers, dancers and athletes can resume significance.
The frame has come alive.
It is no longer a passive jail of four right angles.
Considering the tyranny of the actor
The tyranny or conventional dominant contribution of the actor has been considered for some time in the feature films I have made over then past twelve years within bounds of what could be described as a cinema of passionate detachment. It can be characterised by being sparing of close-ups, a desire not to cut the body unless absolutely necessary, and to be aware of the human figure as a strong compositional element within a self-conscious frame, any gestures or actions that are not sympathetic to the visual composition within a frame, will probably be rejected or simply not seen, or if considered a valuable contribution, re-shot, or reformatted to give them visual compositional significance. The camera views I normally employ would rarely be person orientated. For example I would never use an over-shoulder shot in a two-way conversation and viewpoints are constructed from the ideal position of the camera not the eye-line or viewpoint of the character.
In “The Tulse Luper Suitcases,” the use of the actor has been taken further in such directions, which I believe, and certainly many of the actors believe, gives greater scope to their contribution, whilst still holding them firmly within a space that denies orthodox actor dominance.
One of the major metaphors of the project is the saying that there is no such thing as history, there are only historians, that history, in effect, is a highly subjective business recorded with vested interests. Napoleon could have behaved like this, or like this, or like this. That this conversation could have been delivered like this or this or this. That this interpretation of the event could have been melodramatic or sentimental, melancholic or yet again pathetic. Consequently we have tried to give a cinema audience alternatives, certainly in keeping with the interactivity choices laid down in our ambitions, but also to demonstrate that there is no singular verity. We have often given these interpretations simultaneously or overlaid them with one another in a cubist-like phenomenon, editing and layering techniques which could probably only be achieved with the help of the new technologies.
Conventional cinema editing in true cut-and-paste chronology style, gives you one event at a time sequentially. The cinema has never been good, unlike the theatre for example, at simultaneity. The narratives as a consequence often behave like musical scores, deliberately full of repeats and reprises, variations on a theme, returns to explore thematic areas further and in greater detail, often using different actors to play the same role, to interpret the same material. So much is this a characteristic that, within the dramas themselves, the actors are often viewed as actors, though staying inside the film and not outside of it. We see their auditions. We often show different takes of the same action, a characteristic of cinema rarely seen by viewers but extremely commonplace to actors themselves and certainly to all those involved in the making of a film. So although the conventional virtuosity of the actor on screen is denied or at least abrogated to eradicate the tyranny of his contribution, a respect and an acknowledgement for the actor’s essential presence is certainly championed, even extravagantly championed.
Considering the tyranny of the camera
The spectrum of visual possibilities in the manufacture of the moving image is large, and traditionally the feature film only uses a small section of that spectrum, sufficient to realise an illusionist drama. Mixed visual genres in the cinema are not common. I suppose the combination of live action and the cartoon, noticeably celebrated in a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an example, though it was an experiment not over-enthusiastically copied, and it was a drama that afterall pursued illusionist conceptions, another window-on the world construction, and any Tex Avery self-conscious anarchies, any breaking of the frame techniques, stayed within those conventions.
The days of strict adherence to the Platonic verities, observing singular time, singular place, singular treatment and singular subject, are long gone, and eclecticism is legitimate and honourable. It would be difficult to see how it could be otherwise in an information age with encouraged encyclopaedic thinking.
The supermarket of visual and dramatic possibilities is huge. I believe cinema should seize the opportunity to shop vigourously in the supermarket.
Watching virtually any four minutes of CNN News demonstrates what television has been doing for a long time, using a whole range of communication languages simultaneously. The introduction of more and yet more multiple pictures, lines of moving text, titles, sub-titles, inter-titles, animated diagrams, animated maps, insert talking heads, split screen conversations, has not noticeably created apoplexy in viewers, and though curiously I suspect consciously unaware of the gesture, it is becoming common now for the screen itself to be self referenced with fixed company logos — which really do demonstrate to the viewer that he is watching a screen, and not merely what is conveyed through it.
We have developed habits of visual selection. Largely we take what we want. We can ignore English-language moving text of stock market reports in Tokyo, whilst we focus our attention to watch animated diagrams of hurricanes in Florida, though peripherally we are aware that communications of the world are coming at us fast and furiously. Whilst feature films, Hollywood-style and art-house style, have been pursing the straight and narrow, television has been revelling in communication skills for a long time. Godard suggested that “We look up at cinema, but down at television”, a pointed reference at anatomical reality, but also at snobbish sloth. It is curious that cinema so long regarded as a vulgar medium by the traditional arts has adopted its own snobbisms in the face of competition.
It is a commonplace now that post-production is extremely sophisticated and permeates practically everything we see on screens — not just the ubiquitous dinosaur that is so believable, children are convinced they exist somewhere outside Jurassic Park and demand to see them at the zoo, but clandestinely, polishing up politicians, sexing-up entertainers, erasing mistakes, changing colours, brightening gloomy days, and of course the opposite, adding blood and smoke, transposing grief and pain from one location to another to suit public relations and political expediency. Many years ago, although admiring the technique, we were shocked at the way unwanted politicians disappeared from official Soviet Politburo photographs, such technical manipulations now are commonplace. The ethics are decidedly problematical. But the language, almost what we could call an anti-camera language, is extraordinary.
My fascination and inclination, being interested in process and wishing to demonstrate that process, as well as to give you end-results, solutions and closures, is to use it. If I am making a project whose central metaphor is “there is no such thing as history, there are only historians”, I need to use it. And indeed every possibility of communication by visual image is used. Drama elaborated, Chekovian, kitchen-sink, vaudeville, pantomime, cinema-verite, surveillance, operatic, melodrama, soap-opera, stripped down to a black box, worked up to a David Lean exuberance, pastiche amateur theatricals, talking heads, stand-up comic. And such uses of the actor’s trade are interspliced and elaborated with animated maps and diagrams, cartoon simplicities and cartoon complexities, static and animated texts, multiple typographies and multiple calligraphies. This is an anti-Dogme film. It exuberates and celebrates new cinema language.
Cinema died on the 31st September 1983 when the zapper or the remote control was introduced into the living-rooms of the world. Cinema as our fathers and forefathers knew it was a passive elitist medium, made expensively for the patronised many by the condescending few, with a distribution system that has made its own product virtually unviewable. Now we can break the monopolies, really start with an art of the moving image with viewer participation that can truly empower the imagination, diversify interminably, cater for all, and not patronise audiences. What was cinema? Rows and rows of people sitting still (and who in any other human occupation sits still for 120 minutes?), all looking in one direction (the world is all around you – not just in front of us), in the dark (man is not a nocturnal animal). With a cinema with characteristics like this, perhaps the sooner dead, the better.
Let us rid cinema of the four tyrannies of text, the frame, actors and the camera. But what are we talking about anyway? You haven’t seen any cinema yet, all we have seen is 108 years of illustrated text, and, if you have been lucky, perhaps a little recorded theatre.
Now a cinema of what you think and not what you lazily see is truly possible. Let us seize that nettle and begin the art of the moving image all over again. Every medium needs constant re-invention.
Let us now re-invent that cinema. We can. We now have the most amazing new tools to do so. Now we need the desire and the courage. And this new medium of the moving image will almost certainly not be experienced in those strange high-street pieces of architecture called cinemas.
So-called cinema was invented in 1895. It took 29 years, with Eisenstein’s “Strike” in 1924, to make the first benchmark masterpiece of this new aesthetic-technology of film. If a New Moving Image aesthetic-technology was baptised on 31st September 1983, then we still have a few year’s grace to invent its first benchmark masterpiece.
Well-aware of the dangers of the discrepancies of what I say matching with what I make, I offer you the first toe in the water of an ocean of possibilities in the multi-media, interactive project of “The Tulse Luper Suitcases” — cinema, television, Web site, DVD, library — as a candidate for that benchmark position.