What is Cinema?
For a generation of film fans in the 60′s and 70′s the movies became something more than entertainment. We were intrigued with Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory and waited in anticipation for Pauline Kael’s pithy, colorful, often-cantankerous reviews. We went en masse to new movies coming from Europe. Film was serious business and for many Andre Bazin’s essay collection What is Cinema was revelatory and affirmed our belief in film as art.
Now filmmaker, writer, and producer and Chuck Workman has created a film called What is Cinema?Naming a film after the seminal Bazin text is a risky challenge, but Workman redeems himself. He is experienced at assembling archival clips and interviews, and has created a number of montage sequences for the Academy Awards over the years. His short film Precious Images, created for the Director’s Guild of America in 1985, consisted of dozens of classic Hollywood clips and won the Academy Award for Best Live Action short film the following year.
Unlike his short commercial work for the Academy, however, this film looks at an eclectic group of directors and asks them to answer the teasing question posed in the title. Jonas Mekas says early on how film “helps you to not go crazy, or to go crazy in some other way” as we see a twitchy Norman Bates watching his victim’s car sink into the swamp at the end of Psycho.
Workman’s project starts with observations on the importance of the image over the narrative. Ken Jacobs’ discusses his found footage films, and there are sequences from Hollis Framton, from Mathew Barney’s Cremaster series, and other art house movies. As the beautiful uncut tracking shot from the impressionistic 1964 Soviet-Cuban film I Am Cuba comes on the screen, critic J. Hoberman observes: “A case could be made that the narrative element is secondary to many other things in the movie.” Workman then cuts to filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, ruminating on “The Holy Moment”: “You don’t first think of the story of the song, then make the song. It has to come out of the moment. That’s what film has. It’s just that moment, which is holy.” There is then a segue to Alfred Hitchcock: “When I say I’m not interested in content it would be the same as a painter worrying about whether the apples he’s painting are sweet or sour. Who cares?”
The clips from both experimental and commercial cinema play well against the interviews from a group directors who are known for pushing boundaries. They talk about evoking emotion through images, appearance and meaning in composition, and the impact of sound design. Others deliberate on the relationship between film and memory, on happenstance as a stylistic choice, and on the significance of setting. Because the ideas and clips come from artists as varied as Jonas Mekas, Abbas Kiarostami, Sidney Lumet, Yvonne Rainer, Michael Moore, Costa-Gravas, Robert Altman, Mike Leigh, Bill Viola, and Kelly Reichardt, keen observations and colorful insight abound. There is a short reading from Bazin’s bookWhat is Cinema? and some short pieces created for the film by experimental film and video maker Phil Solomon.
There have been a number of documentaries recently that revisit cinema’s first century and reflect on its ambitions and ideas, inspirations and interpretations. Slavoj Žižek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology andThe Pervert’s Guide to Cinema are perhaps the densest. Filled with humor and rich observation, Žižek situates himself in the actual setting of films and ruminates wildly on the nature of reality and cinema. His films are exhausting, packed with wry philosophical ideas and his unique dry sense of humor. In the British series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, filmmaker Mark Cousin focuses on innovation and the significance of great international and American cinema. Martin Scorsese tried his hand nearly 20 years ago with A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which is a look at “the famous and infamous films, not necessarily the culturally correct ones. Films you may not have heard of.” He primarily wanted to emphasize the work of innovative directors whose work he breaks into genres and categories, such as “The Illusionist,” “The Smuggler,” and “The Iconoclast.” Arts Fuse writer and filmmaker Gerald Peary uses numerous film clips in his examination of the history of film criticism in For the Love of Movies.
What is Cinema? is more open-ended than these other films, but it creates an interesting collision between what is seen and what is heard. Each viewer, in his or her own way, is invited to make sense of the images shown and the ideas expressed about them. The various responses will no doubt generate debate. Students and budding film lovers, less familiar with the wealth of material, will be inspired by the power of the pictures and the wisdom of some of film’s most innovative artists. As Stanley Kubrick observed: “Movies are a school of inattention: people look without seeing, listen without hearing. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”