I recently took part in a Q&A session following screenings of films that I curated from the EFS (Experimental Film Society) archive. The programmes consisted of short films by a number of EFS filmmakers and a feature film of my own and both played to packed houses. While the overall feedback was very positive, there were two harsh and challenging comments that really got under my skin. I responded to them briefly and politely, not lingering on them unduly so as to keep the Q&A flowing. But in the weeks since, I have given them a great deal of thought and discussed them at length with my colleagues Dean Kavanagh and Maximilian Le Cain. What follows is the considered response that I have formulated.
The comments were:
“The films in this series were so personal, formal and experimental that no-one can communicate with them. There is no way to enter into the world of these works and thus no way to enjoy them at all.”
“Many of these works shouldn’t even be here! I repeat- these works should never have been screened here.”
Essentially, my understanding of these statements is that due to the fact that the films were ‘personal’ in form, spirit and content they cannot be understood and therefore they should not even exist. As an underground filmmaker committed to creating intensely personal, formally radical cinema, it is certainly not the first time that I’ve heard responses like these. And not just aimed at my work but also at the work of colleagues and other experimental or even sometimes relatively mainstream films. Perhaps this reaction of violent rejection is a natural defence mechanism that kicks in when someone is confronted with the shock of an idea so alien as to seem fundamentally inappropriate. Of course, the history of alternative cinema is also a history of such confrontations. When a filmmaker gets this type of response, unless he or she is interested in provoking the audience for the sheer sake of provocation, it is because the viewer’s received understanding of how to ‘communicate’ with a film has been thrown into crisis. As an experimental filmmaker, one hopes that if the film works, this confrontation will result in the viewer’s perception rising to the challenge and that ideally he or she will leave with an opened mind or even an expanded consciousness. And not just with a broadened understanding of cinema but with a somehow enriched (or, indeed, disturbed) sense of perception itself.
However, the specific nature of the ‘personal’ aspect of my filmmaking gives this ambition a whole other dimension. Working as I do - with no budget, doing more or less everything myself and essentially inventing a way of making films all of my own - results in films that naturally emerge as something close to a pure manifestation of my thoughts and emotions. Therefore, admittedly, there may be certain elements of them that remain impenetrable when not experienced through my individual biology. Yet the remnants and spectres of internal moments that remain on the surface of the work are sufficiently present, when light strikes them, to communicate enough to an audience for them to form a relationship of their own with what they see and hear. And the emphasis should be on ‘a relationship of their own’.
Making these films is a process of freely exploring one’s own often strange and disconcerting perceptual reactions to existing in a world that appears more and more mysterious and unstable the more one looks at it. A world that we largely perceive through sight, sound and the medium of an individual sensibility. The techniques of cinema, therefore, are ideally and uniquely suited to investigating personal perception in a way that can reveal the nature of one’s inner relationship with the world to a heightened degree. Likewise, plunging cinema into such murky and volatile territory results in a profound research into the capacities, mysteries and limitations of cinema itself. The filmmaker uses cinema and cinema uses the filmmaker’s unique sensibility each to probe the nature of the other. Each goads the other on, each pushing the perceptual boundaries of the other, each revealing hidden aspects of the other’s nature. Far from using film as merely a device for illustrating preconceived ideas or conveying information in a conventionally manipulative fashion, this approach can result in confronting the audience with a vision that is truly unique. A vision that is as frail and delicate as any person, and sometimes as aggressive and enigmatic as well.
What results from this open, exploratory way of working is not ultimately solipsistic but profoundly interpersonal. The filmmaker is not presenting the audience with a pre-digested idea expressed from the position of authority that most films automatically assume. There is no attempt to take the viewers ‘out of themselves’ through entertainment or to ‘make them think’ in the manner of films with a ‘message’. Instead, they are invited to join the filmmaker in an experiential exploration of the atmospheres, emotions and processes that the film embodies almost in a spirit of co-creation. Each viewer remains conscious of his or her own feelings and reactions throughout the screening. And these reactions are as important a part of the film as what is being projected before them. The experience of watching the film becomes a personal interrogation of the viewer’s perceptions by and for that viewer. Therefore, the film can become as much about the viewer as the filmmaker.
A strong audience can not only enrich but actually alter the film. These are films that can only be concluded in the viewer’s mind, not on the screen. I like to think of the film as a mysterious object drifting in the void of deep space. Both the filmmaker and the audience are satellites floating around this strange entity, both trying to decipher it in their own way. This results in a state of constant exchange: we are not alone because we have cinema through which we can communicate, viewer and filmmaker both on an equal level (albeit admittedly within terms set by the filmmaker). And what we are trying to communicate is something ineffable that we can perhaps sense but which only the techniques of cinema can make visible.
The difference between this way of creating and the traditional, emotionally manipulative narrative techniques of the mainstream are so obvious as to be almost not worth mentioning. To pitch EFS against Hollywood is redundantly quixotic. Today, with everyone making films and moving image equipment of one sort or another almost universally accessible, there is nothing exceptional about a film existing outside commercial structures. Through my own experience as an underground filmmaker, however, I have become aware of other, more insidious orthodoxies that have sometimes emerged from what was once radical, and which perhaps should be called out.
Cinema is assumed to have an obligation to operate within defined and accepted rules. But those rules are not just the rules of the mainstream. ‘Alternative’ traditions can be every bit as ‘safe’ and pander to the complacent requirements of consumers of these traditions as lazily as the most banal soap opera. Examples where this is prevalent include ‘mumblecore’ films, where ‘rawness’ is all too often an excuse for shoddy filmmaking; materialist films where the very fact of something being shot on a small gauge format makes it somehow worthy of admiration; and, most tricky of all, films dealing with political oppression or revolt which simply by virtue of doing so are accorded cinematic merit even if they are no more than reportage. Of course, all three traditions have glorious antecedents in cinema history, often from pioneering moments when such films were still rare events. And, still today, all three traditions do sometimes produce magnificent work (as does the mainstream). But the problem is that they are what is automatically recognised in many quarters as radical cinema, which gives critics and festivals an excuse not to look any further. They are frequently hailed by category rather than quality and the viewer knows exactly where to stand in relation to them while still being able to feel ‘radical’ or ‘alternative’. This is what occupies the margins, pushing anything else even further into oblivion. And this sells cinema short.
Truth be told, the audio-visual landscape of the 21st century is so volatile and measureless that anyone conscientiously working as an artist in it needs to keep on their toes as never before. Not in the sense of ‘keeping up’ with the new but rather in constantly questioning the value of what they are doing as against the vast quantity of moving images flooding the world and the unprecedented ease of creating them. Broadly speaking, we are no longer operating within a linear history of aesthetic development but adrift in a flood of stylistic choices (or simulacra of same) which technology allows pretty much anyone to assume with facile, cavalier ease. We aren’t links in a chain of historical development now. We are denizens of a later era rummaging in the boxes of bric-a-brac left over from that heroic time. This is not in itself necessarily a bad thing but, if one still cares at all about cinema, it is obvious that the responsibility in this situation is enormous.
Today, it is up to each filmmaker worth his or her salt to reinvent cinema in his or her own image. Nothing short of that is sufficient. This reinvention does not take place in a void. The lessons of film history should be studied and assimilated because to exist in the world today is to be influenced by moving images whether we like it or not. Studying the work of the masters allows us to navigate moving images critically and perceive them outside the context of what is generally fed to us in society. As a filmmaker, it is necessary to formulate your own sense of composition, colour, sound and rhythm – a voice and a heartbeat that is entirely your own. You must also discover and explore a universe that is unique and personal to you, discarding the alibis of ‘content’ in favour of presenting the viewer with something that he or she can’t see anywhere else. It is necessary to cut into or even straight through reality to reveal the deeper insights into existence that only the tools and techniques of cinema can touch. To forge a cinematic language entirely of your own is enough to accomplish this. Films should be born of a particular vision, a personal way of using sound and image. This should be the starting point of a film, which should then organically seek out its appropriate subject matter. It should not be used simply to cosmetically amplify or garnish an indifferent scenario.
It is paradoxical indeed that in a world where moving images are our constant companions, interest in their intrinsic powers and properties seems at an all-time low, at least beyond strictly utilitarian terms – normally ‘how can I use this to sell something?’ Rather than the miraculous constructs of sound and vision that they can be, they have become simply the least demanding methods of transmitting information that could be conveyed otherwise. Moving image makers and audiences have settled for a codified and superficial relationship dictated by an accepted approach to ‘subject’. In consequence, like the human brain, cinema, TV, gallery installations, internet videos and all other forms of moving image work tend to chug along at less than 10% of their potential capacity. It seems films are not generally allowed to directly confront the mystery and immensity of things that we have no way of easily understanding, such as nature, animals, the cosmos or our very existence without trivialising them. Everything must be neatly reduced to bite-size portions of easily digestible information, a weak reflection of the world where ideas can be safely toyed with. Cinema’s vast experiential capacities are capable of so much more than this, but it seems the majority of people don’t know how to look or listen with any greater sensitivity than students at a lecture absorbing facts. As a Spanish film scholar recently said in conversation: “The truth is most people actually hate cinema”.
A Facebook friend of mine (Daniel Fawcett) put his finger on the problem with this reaction to the art world, one that holds equally true for any area of tepid moving image creation and consumption:
“The despicable state of the art world summarised here in a comment:
“He’s a really compelling filmmaker. I’ve noticed that when his films are shown in galleries people will sit through 45 minutes and no one will leave.”
Is that really the best that can be said about a winning piece of artwork, that people sit through it? Artists, galleries, art schools and critics are participating in crushing the creative spirit. Do artists no longer aspire to create great work, to truly experiment and make works with their whole being rather than all this pseudo-intellectual passionless dross? Nobody seems to take risks anymore, art should aspire to expand our consciousness and to reach beyond our current limitations not just get us a pat on the back and dinner invitations from art world chums. As Campbell said in his acceptance speech “the opinions of the people on the jury matter a great deal” so that’s what it's all about folks!”
So what should cinema be? I have always liked Nicole Brenez’s ideal definition of art as ‘a catastrophe’. Cinema should be a catastrophe in the way that life is, in the way that opening your eyes on the world every morning is. Personally, I like to define the cinematic experience as something similar to what some scientists predict death by falling into a black hole could be like. When you fall in, you are not only pulled apart but also crushed from below. When you look out of the black hole, you see every single thing that has even fallen into it since its birth, rushing at you in a fraction of a second, crushing you into nothingness. Cinema itself is not a black hole. It is a human creation. But it can contain all galaxies and forms of life, even ones we can’t fully comprehend but can only sense.
As Robert Bresson said: “I believe in cinema”.
As Robert Bresson said: “I believe in cinema”.
- Written by Maximilian Le Cain, Dean Kavanagh & Rouzbeh Rashidi